Check the clock on the wall. Pull your mobile phone out of your back pocket. Confirm the time. Time to leave. Put it back in your pocket. Aim the remote control at the stereo to turn the radio off. Walk to the bathroom: pass under the smoke detector; step over the remote-control car. Put a knob of toothpaste onto your toothbrush. Press the button and buzz your teeth clean. Place the toothbrush on its charger. Return to the kitchen. Plug your laptop into the socket; charge it for later. Grab your keys. Check the temperature on the digital thermometer; you’ll need your coat from the car. Press the lime green button on your garage door remote. Hear the rumble of the garage door rising. Press the button on your car key. Hear the punch of the car doors being unlocked. Open the boot and retrieve your coat. Close the boot. Get reminded by the three-year-old that you promised to buy some new batteries for his bubble-making machine at the supermarket today. Think ungracious thoughts about grandparents and their ridiculous gifts that keep on demanding. Wonder, not for the first time, what you should be doing with the dead batteries? (You’ve noticed, for quite some time, the picture of a rubbish bin with a big X through it on the packaging.) Press the garage door remote. Hear the rumble thump of the closing garage door.
The day is sunny, so walk to school. Drop off one child. Return home with the three-year-old and the one-year-old in the stroller. It’s rubbish day, so the bins stand at attention on the footpath. Pick up litter on your way home. Tell the three-year-old to grab the bottles out of the gutter. Ask if he knows why. Say because otherwise the rubbish goes down that drain and ends up in the ocean. It can make sea-birds and fish sick. Watch him bound towards the bottles and pick them up.
Hear him ask which bin should it go in?
Say that one with the yellow lid. That’s where we put plastic. Watch him race to the bin, and lift the lid to slip the bottles in. Notice another bottle entangled in the long grass against the fence. Bend over and scoop up the opaque plastic bottle clouded by exposure to light and heat. See that it has been in the grass for a while; a bottle-shaped imprint in the dirt has been uncovered. The earth is beginning the long process of breaking it down – just under 450 years to go. Tip out the discoloured water onto the grass. Hold it between your thumb and finger. Say here’s another one and give it to the boy and watch him drop it into the recycling bin. Hear the bin contents rattle as a man trudges up the steps beside his garage. See he’s wearing the casual clothes of a man about to do some labouring work and he’s carrying a length of wood. Give him a friendly smile. Notice he looks at you with hard pebbly eyes. Listen to him tell you it’s a private bin.
Reply I know. We just picked the bottle up from there. Point to the grass beside his fence.
Listen to him repeat it’s private.
Say nothing. Keep walking. Feel your cheeks sting.
Notice the three-year-old’s face is looking up at yours. Listen to his question. What did that man say?
Struggle to find the words, to find the logic.
Tell your three-year-old he said nothing. Quickly suggest that you cross the road here. Lower the stroller off the footpath. The boy grips your finger like a fledgling and you carefully look right, left, right, then cross. (Something is entangled in your stomach. Breathe and try to release it.) Walk past a plastic bag (10—20 years), a glass bottle (1 million years), a can (200 years). Observe clusters of plastic bottles gathering at the edge of the storm water drain.
There is no logic. You can’t explain why the man didn’t want the litter that has been gathering outside his property transferred to his recycling bin. Imagine you had the courage to take the bottle out and toss it back on the grass bordering his property. Feel annoyed that he should make you feel like this when you were doing good. Think if everyone took responsibility for wayward litter while walking about, there would be none. Indignant, that’s what you feel. And besides, is his council recycling bin private? Surely spare capacity in a bin that a council provides and services is a public good. Try to think of something else.
Get home. Remove the dead batteries from the bubble machine so you know the type you need to replace. Decide you can’t go on pretending like you haven’t seen the graphic on the batteries — the rubbish bin with a big X through it. (What does this mean?) Google battery disposal.
Read the instructions that tell you to reduce the environmental impact of batteries, choose products powered by alternative energy sources, such as solar or kinetic energy, and use rechargeable batteries rather than single-use disposable batteries whenever possible. Learn that single-use batteries are not classed as a hazardous waste in New Zealand and it’s okay to dispose of small quantities of these batteries with household waste. Discover that all vehicle batteries, single-use button cells, rechargeable batteries and appliances should be recycled at an appropriate centre. Stumble across the instructions for larger quantities: batteries should be encapsulated in concrete so no leaching occurs, and then disposed to landfill.
Stop jiggling your foot. (What’s in batteries? Encapsulating batteries in concrete doesn’t suggest they’re benign. And surely it’s still the same problem if you throw out a lifetime’s worth of dead batteries gradually, versus throwing all of them out at once.) Find out that batteries contain heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, nickel and mercury. Heavy metals are found in the environment naturally, but when batteries decompose, the environment receives high concentrations and fish, plants, and animals take them up. Feel your stomach contorting into an uncomfortable shape, and your mouth becoming dry as you read about where exposure to heavy metals affects the human body: kidney, liver, heart, stomach, lungs, nervous and reproductive and neurological systems. Tunnel vision! Cancer! Feel your heartbeat slowing as you learn that exposing a developing foetus to heavy metals can lead to development abnormalities, including behavioural and intellectual difficulties. Birth defects!
Stop reading. Recall the memory of the taste of a battery in your mouth as a child. The metallic knob almost hummed on your tongue. Take a break from the heavy metals and dead batteries. Remember you need to replace the dead light bulb in the bedroom. Carry the chair into the bedroom. Step on it, and reach up to unscrew the light bulb out of the socket. Feel the blood draining out of your hands, the numbing of your fingertips. Stretch your neck as you look above your head, like a pelican extending its neck to swallow a fish. With your numb fingertips, hold the bulb and twist. It loosens and you pull it out. Carry the dead light bulb into the kitchen, and toss it in the rubbish bin. Take the box of light bulbs out of the cupboard. Grip the knife and make an incision through the seal of the box. Lift the cardboard box lid, and start to lever up the side flap of the cardboard box. Your hand stops on this newly exposed flap of cardboard: If you break an energy saver bulb, please follow these instructions. Remove all persons from the room. Ventilate the room for 20—30 minutes. Do not use a vacuum cleaner. Use disposable rubber gloves to remove the pieces. Seal the remains of the broken bulb and rubber gloves in a plastic bag for safe disposal.
Feel your eyebrows leap up your forehead. Ventilation? Evacuation? What are in these light bulbs? Pick up the dead light bulb from your rubbish bin. Carefully hold the bulb in the palm of your hand. Trace the bulb with your finger, the dips between the spirals of glass tubing, the stubby metal base. Find nothing. Rest the bulb on the kitchen bench. Pick up the box and turn it over in your hands. Find a five-millimetre graphic of a rubbish bin with an X through it.
Search the internet for energy saver bulbs. Discover that energy saver compact fluorescent light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury. (Your face may blanch as your eye passes over mercury and recognises it as one of the heavy metals found in batteries.) Bulbs require mercury to radiate light but the mercury is not emitted. Learn it is very unlikely that a broken energy saver light bulb will have an impact on health and despite containing mercury, energy saver light bulbs are better for the environment than traditional bulbs.
Feel slightly nauseous. Acknowledge you have spent your entire life tossing batteries into the rubbish bin. And you’ve been throwing mercury-laden energy saver bulbs in the bin since they became available. (Birth defects! Cancer! Tunnel vision!)
Feel stunned that you have managed to be ignorant of this for so long.
Feel annoyed that you no longer are ignorant.
Consider the options. It would be best if you were prepared to live without batteries or light bulbs. Caress your mobile phone’s glossy screen. Check your email while you’re there. Note the rain radar indicates a shower this morning. Decide you can’t live without light bulbs and batteries.
Wonder if you can pretend you don’t know the implications of throwing the dead batteries into your household waste. Apply a type of tunnel vision? Don’t think about heavy metals. Don’t think about the metallic cylinder of the battery corroding and the heavy metals dissolving and seeping into the soil and water supply and eroding your good opinion of yourself.
Find a website for a service that accepts a minimum of three tonnes of batteries for recycling but that’s not going to help you and your handful of batteries, each the weight of a sparrow corpse. Discover your local council accepts 20 kilograms or 20 litres of household hazardous waste, free of charge. Light bulbs and batteries are listed in this category. Decide this is the solution. Select a box. It’s hollow and deep. Gather the dead batteries, and gently lay them on the base of the box. Seal the light bulb into its cardboard box. Cast your eyes over the toxic dead. Plan to deliver the box to the council centre when it’s full.
Now take the opportunity to go grocery shopping while your husband is at home — he can look after the children. Press the green button on the remote and hear the rumble of the garage door opening. Get in your car and drive to the supermarket. The grey overcast sky hangs low, hazes of light rain drift across the windscreen. The wipers scrape the water to the sides. Pull the steering wheel hard, and drop into the covered car park. The car lights automatically wake in the dim underground light. Hoist up the handbrake and lurch to a stop. Grab your wallet, keys, phone, and scurry into the supermarket. Veggies, fruit, meat, milk, cheese, yoghurt, breakfast cereal, bread, toilet paper, nappies, batteries, light bulbs.
Feel pleased that the supermarket is lightly populated. Swing your trolley around and zip between shelves. Round the cereal aisle and see your friend Claire. Look at her trolley. Notice she has very few items in it. Remember that she grows her vegetables in a community garden, buys supplementary veggies from the market, goes to the organic grocer, and then takes her empty containers into shops for refilling. Wonder where she gets the time. Cast your eyes over your own trolley contents. Feel a wave of unease at the sight of all the plastic bags (10—20 years) that wrap your vegetables, bread, meat, cheese, cereal, and the plastic bottles of milk (450 years); the waxed cartons of yoghurt (3 months). Try not to think about your contribution to the Great Plastic Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Try not to think of that Garbage Patch slurry of microplastics that may be more than three times the land area of New Zealand. Note that you still think about it. (You may feel hopeless.)
Make nice social chitchat. Say goodbye. Continue down the aisle. Inhale deeply.
Reach the nappies and stop; you need nappies. Lean your weight on the trolley handle while perusing the shelves. Notice they brim with clean wide-eyed babies, and colourful cartoon animals. Determine the nappies you require: one full-time nappy wearer, two children who wear nappies in bed. Nappies come in packets; the number of nappies per packet varies. Each packet has a different cost. As the nappy size increases, the number of nappies per packet decreases and the price per nappy increases. Consider value for money. Consider reliability. Recall that you used to consider the environment, but that was when you had only one child and maternity leave and lived in a climate where cloth nappies could air-dry within one day. Think about the soiled nappies that start as balls rolling like marbles around the bottom of the wheelie rubbish bin and gradually build to a fetid mountain over a week. Think about the fouled nappies stamped with your children’s DNA, decomposing for 450 years. Console yourself that at least you have a compost bin now.
Consider the options for the youngest child. There are nappies designed for girls (pink with butterflies over them), for boys (blue with snails on them), or the unisex nappy. Feel wary. (Gender specific nappies? Consumer trickery?) Suspect the nappy companies have differentiated a product, adding perceived value when there is no functional difference.
Get sucked into a vortex of numbers. Consider economies of scale. If you buy a packet with more nappies in it, then the unit cost is smaller. Consider where to put them. (It is all very well to be attracted to the decreasing unit cost by buying a greater number, but your house does not have any storage.) More nappies would only be more clutter cluttering up your cluttered house. There simply isn’t anywhere for them to go.
Shake your head. Pull your mobile out of your pocket. Check the time. Feel your heart jolt. Realise you have twenty-five minutes to get through two more aisles and the checkout, then groceries packed into the boot and home. Just choose! The priority is containment! Not on clothes, not on the floor, not on the bed, not creating more work! Seize three purple packets in each size. These will fit! These will work!
Finish shopping. Drive away from the supermarket, wind along the grey roads up the hill towards home. Approach the home of the man with the hard pebbly eyes. Notice his rubbish bag hasn’t been picked up yet. Imagine you had the forethought to place a bag filled with soiled nappies in the car before heading to the supermarket. Visualise it on the front passenger seat. Lower the front passenger window and slow the car. When the open window is lined up with his fence, imagine hurling that bag with its festering contents out of the window. Imagine grunting with the effort. Accelerate smoothly away as the window closes. Look in the rear-view mirror. Picture the bag slumped over the footpath. Take the next left turn. (You live on the street on the next right.) Take another left turn and another and another. Approach his house again. Picture the man standing by his garage; his hard pebbly eyes darkening. Imagine mounting the footpath and accelerating and hitting the first rubbish bag containing the nappies, then the second rubbish bag. Imagine each rubbish bag exploding under the pressure of the front wheel. Visualise the contents of the rubbish bags splattering over his garage, over his front fence, over his jeans and sneakers. Dirtied nappies. Left over takeaway pizza. Coffee grounds. A five-day-old chicken carcass. A cascade of shattered glass and mercury from an energy saver bulb. (You may feel a glow of something.)