There’s Something Happening Here (?) by
(58 Stories)

Prompted By Recycling

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Recycling? Hah!

Many of us, perhaps, began recycling even before we knew what it was.

Visit the brand new transfer station, spanking clean. Return home and excitedly relate the news. "You're raving about a dump?" Never mind.

Did your family get its milk from home delivery?  Ours did.  In bottles, during my younger years.  The “milkman” (milk person doesn’t cut it, does it?) came three days a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  No one locked doors, so the milkman would tap gently at the back door and let himself in.  He’d go to the refrigerator, check our “inventory” and add, as necessary, to reach the agreed-upon total. I don’t remember what we did with the emptied bottles; probably had a container by the back door, where the milkman retrieved them for return and reuse by the dairy.  I remember the bottles had an ingenious paper cap, improbably secure.

1972: Working in the University library.A colleague suggested that we offer our unused Library of Congress catalog cards for re-use; ideal for recipes.  No takers, even in the progressive city where we were.

1976: Our new home; new town, new system.No town trash pick-up.  Money tight.  Town dump conveniently located, so we haul our own trash.  Just a landfill; no separation of anything. By 1980, shortly before we left, the town closed the dump and built a transfer station.  I remember going there for the first time; brand spanking new; clean, and receptacles for trash, cans, and paper.  A start.  Return home and excitedly relate the news to my wife.  Who is not impressed.  “You’re raving about a dump?”  Never mind.

Over the years, many different residences; different states, different systems.  Lake Placid 2004.  The town maintained a transfer station; it had extensive categories of recyclables; residents had to sort their own.  The station was policed by a rotating crew of not-very-friendly guys who seemed to be eternally suspicious that folks would sneak the green glass in with the brown.  The station was the only destination along its access road.  Dump Lane.  Later renamed “Recycle Center Lane”.  I liked the old one better.

To modern day.  Private trash hauling.  Single stream recycling, so no more sorting. The company supplies barrels, a green one for trash and a blue one for recyclables.  Monday is collection day on our road.  Every week the driver meticulously dumps the green barrel into the truck’s single compactor. Just before he empties the blue barrel.  Into the same one.  Oh well.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Ouch, what an ending, Tom. At least there are two different trucks that come around in our neighborhood for the respective bins. Recycling was a ton of work back in the day. In California, every city has different rules, which makes it all the more confusing when you are visiting folks and helping in the kitchen.

    • Yes, ouch. But it is what it is. They literally have us over a barrel. Or two. They used to do two runs. They also occasionally sent a smaller truck that had space for both. But they’ve gotten greedy.

  2. Marian says:

    Oh, and I love the part about the milkman and the bottles. Our empties were left on the front porch to be swapped out for full ones.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    A great little history, Tom. And on topic, too. At first, seeing your featured image, I thought we might just be embarking on a pun-ishing little ride with you.

    And I particularly appreciate your remembrance of milk bottles from Back In the Day. Let’s give the dairy guys credit for what they were doing then, no. And your memories of it align perfectly with my own. But do you remember the cream at the top of the milk bottle?

    • I do remember the cream; but that was only briefly. Our dairy began to homogenize milk quite early in the game. My four-year H roommate was a route man for a dairy on the South Shore; had some interesting tales to tell.

  4. Oh dear Tom, not good news for the planet.

    You may have heard about the two women who meet and one says, “I see you got a new hat.”
    “Yes, “ says the other, “whenever I’m down in the dumps I treat myself to one.”
    “Oh”, says her friend, “that’s where you get them.”

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    The Milkman! Yes, absolutely, Tom! Twin Pines Dairy in Detroit. We had a milk chute in our house, probably lead-lined. Put the empty bottles in it, full bottles appeared (with those ingenious caps) on the appropriate days. They even sponsored a Saturday kid’s show with Milky, the Twin Pines Clown. My next-door neighbor Susie and I would watch it while playing with our dolls.

    The rest of your tale really covers all the bases, from your wife’s indifference about your excitement to the sparkling new transfer station (that’s what it’s called…I couldn’t remember for my story) to you having two separate bins, but everything getting picked up by one truck now. WTF? Pardon my quasi-French. I don’t understand the concept. Where I live, we were given two different barrels by the city, but two different trucks come to collect, so all is right in my part of the world. I enjoyed your review over the years and different locations.

    • Thanks, Betsy. I think our situation here is the exception not the rule. Where I lived previously the village picked up the refuse: trash on Tuesday and recyclables on Friday so there was absolute separation. The village streets were narrow so the garbage trucks presented a congestion problem; the village solved it by having the pickups at 2am. Funny how quickly one adapted to the noise to the point that I didn’t notice it after a time.

  6. Suzy says:

    Yes, the milkman cometh! We had a little box on our back porch with doors on the inside and outside. He opened the outside door to take away our empties and replace them with full bottles, and then we opened the door on the inside to do the reverse. And the bottles did have those paper caps on the top. Great memory, and great to realize that it was the original recycling.

    Surprised about nobody wanting the catalog cards from Widener. I probably would have taken them if I had known. Sorry to hear your ex-wife (my classmate) did not appreciate your excitement about the new transfer station. And interesting observations about Lake Placid and your current community. Like Betsy, we have separate trucks – actually 3 different ones, for garbage, recycling, and “yard waste” (i.e. grass, leaves, etc.).

    • Thanks, Suzy. Yes, I was surprised there were no takers. But then again, there was no social media to get the word out; it was mostly bulletin board stuff (remember those?) And most of them were so saturated with postings that they all disappeared. And the new transfer station? Well. Can’t blame her. I remember that it was sounding stupid to me as I said it.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    Another hand raised here on the milkman memory–like Suzy, we had a box that opened from inside and outside and so served as a pass-through. We could order milk, cottage cheese, butter, and maybe even bread and eggs before they all went out of business. There was a play structure at the nursery school that was a milk wagon–we called it the wilk magon–and of course there were old jokes about the milkman and the housewives. Transfer stations have really developed over the years–I was in awe when I went to the one in Oakland and saw the huge machines moving the piles of trash around. Who knew that trash would be so central to living responsibly on the planet?

  8. Funny, Tom! I love the suspicious guys in Lake Placid, and the truck driver who meticulously dumps the blue glass into the same container with the green. You do have a way with words!
    And BTW…I’ll be in the Hudson Valley next week to visit a high school friend. I’ll be careful not to put the wrong stuff in the right barrel;-)

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    I remember the milkman very well, Tom, but ours left the milk in a small chute near our back door where we left the empties. Now while I try to follow the recycling rules carefully, I strongly suspect much of it ends up co-mingled with the trash.

    • I think you’re right as to the last point. I’m not conversant with the current economics of recycling from the trash haulers standpoint; I believe at an earlier time recyclables had a greater value that made it worth the while from the haulers standpoint.

  10. All the way from milkmen in the kitchen to modern transfer stations. In the midst, I was reminded of our town dump in rural Massachusetts, complete with rabid rats. This prompt has brought so much out of all of us!

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