Eve Pearlman: Hello, Alameda
While most of the rest of the country gets colder (East Coast friends write of rain and first frosts), our sunny coastal town peaks in temperature in September – with October not far behind. Here, bougainvilleas flower, grasses grow, and the sun shines marvelously. Supremely warm fall days, elsewhere odd, are normal here.
Now that school is back in session, I have spent many lunch hours helping the students at my children’s elementary school sort their lunch trash into the bins in the school’s courtyard. I do this because last spring the Alameda Unified School District won a grant to start a program to divert recyclables and compost from landfills. While eventually this system will be in use at all the Island’s public schools, right now it’s getting its sea legs at a few pilot sites. Noble and essential as it is, on the ground I have found it to be a touch grouchy-making. I return from lunch with my hands sticky from pulling little plastic straws from the compost containers, from fishing recyclable single-serving applesauce cups from the trash. Seems as though there has to be a better way?
I e-mail a friend who moved recently to Switzerland, imagining that in a sophisticated European nation they’ll be light years ahead of our good-old-brazenly-big-box USA. But, writes my friend, not so: Their systems are not at all streamlined. Plastics, she writes, have to be brought back to the grocery store; to get yard clippings hauled off, you must call in advance to arrange for city pick up; glass, tin cans and batteries must be brought to a local recycling site. “For compost,” she writes, “we take our green bucket to the neighborhood compost garden every Saturday between 10 and 11 a.m. – not exactly convenient – and people are expected to take turns mixing up the compost.”
Hmmm, so much for my dreamy idea. I guess here in Alameda we are pretty lucky to have three bins picked up weekly at our curbs. And thank goodness we can mix cardboard, metal, and plastic in one blue bin – no need to bring it anywhere. By e-mail, my friend agrees: “California is way easier!” she writes. “I think Europeans have been recycling this way for a long time so it’s not seen as a burden to them.”
I print out two articles to bring to my daughter’s class when I go in to talk to them about helping with the new lunch waste disposal system. One article describes the miles-wide swirl of plastics in the Pacific Ocean. The second is about the ozone-destroying methane gas produced by landfills. It is bleak.
But then one afternoon as I help the kindergartners sort their lunch detritus – they’re five, and earnestly doing their very best to get the system right – I have a minor epiphany there in the courtyard sunlight: The project is indeed practical, they’ll learn, and soon enough this three-bin method won’t be a big deal. It’ll be what they’ve always done. It’ll be the new normal, as normal to them as warm fall days – as normal as sleet and freezing rain is to our friends in colder climes.
Normal, it is easy to forget, is very often simply what is. Take for example health care, with which we’re currently obsessed. Right now, it is our national normal that people lose their insurance if they’re laid off – and that they then may or may not be able to find insurance coverage on their own depending on whether or not they have a “pre-existing condition,” depending on some profit-making insurance company’s arbitrary decision. It’s normal now for people to suddenly find themselves uninsurable when they need care the most – when they have a chronic illness or an acute injury.
But I wonder if someday this curious situation will no longer be normal – that instead it’ll be normal to expect access to health care even if you have a chronic disease, a disability, or work for yourself. What is normal changes, and this gives me hope. Maybe reliable health insurance will be normal, just like it will be second nature of kids of the coming generation to sort through their waste.
And so our fall days go on, sunny-sunny, with Alamedans ever-eager, despite the chaos on the national level, and chaos in many homes, work-and-bank-account-related, to enjoy the weeks and months in our fair city, of this fall of 2009. More next week.