Wednesday, July 17, 2013

recycling and "the debris" in tennessee

I just spent a week's vacation in the smoky mountains of Tennessee.  We stayed on Lake Watauga, a body of water touted as the second-clearest lake in the country.  Hearing that, and reading from the rental agency that we should avoid bringing paper and plastic kitchen products because they have "limited trash facilities" and excess trash would be "frowned upon," I expected pristine.  I was not disappointed.

I took this from our deck just minutes after we arrived. 
I've never seen the end of a rainbow before--it went right into our own pot of gold: the lake!

Olivia fishing on our dock.

Taken from my canoe in the river that feeds into the lake right across from our cabin.
Canoeing through here felt otherworldly.
It was completely still and silent, save the kingfishers darting among the trees.

Showing you all that, however, is like showing you a family photo album that has pictures of the wedding, the birthdays and the vacations, but not the death, the divorce, or the long days at work.   So I'll have to turn my camera around for you. 

There was also this:

This is what our dock looked like on the first morning, surrounded by what we came to call "the debris." 

Apparently, recent weeks have brought record amounts of rain to the area.  Locals boasted that the lake was EIGHT FEET higher than usual.  We didn't doubt it as we could paddle around in the canoe while peering down at fences and walkways that lay still and unused 6-8 feet below us. Our own boat house poked only its nose above the flood:

Unfortunately, like a mischievous child, those eight feet of water crept their sticky fingers up into everyone's yards the week before we arrived, lifted everything buoyant, and set it adrift.  Consequently, the lake roiled with floating driftwood, bits of twigs and leaves, and, you know it's coming: plastic crap.  Lots of it. 

Are you thinking that the lake and my vacation were ruined?  I admit it was shocking to see so much trash in this beautiful place, but "the debris" came and left in waves.  It traveled like the blob, in big amorphous slurries that answered to the whims of the wind and the moods of the river that fed into the lake.  Also, it's wasn't smelly or slimy or slick.  It floated atop the water, leaving no trace of itself when it moved on. 

What made it feel dirty was the plastic.  You may know that one of the big problems with plastic as a pollutant is that it's light weight, making it highly transient.  I could swim in this lake and see my feet it was so clear, but when "the debris" arrived, we'd watch plastic containers, balls, water bottles (oh, the water bottles!), and even a broken pink plastic tricycle (darn I wish I'd gotten a picture of that) float by amid the wood and the twigs.  Whatever trash might have been sitting around in people's front yards, half buried, waiting to be fixed, or waiting to be thrown away, had gone traveling.   

Are you wondering why people had so much plastic crap in their yards to begin with?  I bet it didn't look like a lot when it was contained to people's property.  We all have stuff tucked away in our yards, don't we?  If a flood came up on my carport right now, a few plastic buckets for gardening, a sidewalk chalk container, a hoola-hoop, a big plastic watering can and some Ping-Pong balls would all go a -traveling.  None of it really looks like trash right now, but it sure would have if it had floated past my dock last week while I fished with my kids. 

Is the moral of this story to keep our plastic trash tied down in case of a flood? Or is it simply to avoid having so much plastic crap to begin with?

On one evening, I sat on the dock splashing my feet in the water.  The light was just so, the water a mirror, my feet feeling baptized by the kind of cool that speaks of depth and mountains.  Everything was so still, I could see the current from the nearby river, running relentless and purposeful through the middle of the lake.  I felt that calm we all hope to find on vacation.  Then, I noticed a huge piece of white plastic, jagged and bobbing, sailing like a great ship down the center of the current. Are you old enough to remember those cars that used to drive around with bullhorns on top of them blaring political messages into quiet neighborhoods?  I actually don't think I'm old enough to have ever seen one myself, but you've seen them in the movies, right?  This chunk of a defunct plastic container, sailing past in all its glaring trashiness, reminded me of those cars. It blared its bullhorn through the evening sublime to tell us once and for all to PLEASE STOP THROWING SHIT IN THE LAKE!"

In a great irony, while lamenting the presence of so much plastic, we discovered that the local municipality did not provide recycling services. 

Were we to throw our recycling in the trash?! 

As far as water goes, I had only brought one 5-gallon jug with us in case we discovered the tap wasn't potable.  We didn't need it, however, because the well water tasted pure and wonderful--no way did I want to miss that for some prepackaged Polar Springs a la polyethylene blah blah blah. 

But beer didn't come out of the tap (darn it!).  Neither did wine.  And not everyone on our trip had come with reusable water bottles with which to take advantage of the tap.  With a crowd of sixteen (it was a family reunion kind of event), we accumulated a pile of recyclables faster than "the debris" could collect at our dock.

What to do with it all?  I announced that we should save it, and I started a pile on my back porch.  I had no idea what I would do with the regiments of cans and bottles that soon stood ready for battle outside my door, but I recruited them anyway.  People humored me, sending an occasional soldier to join the ranks. 

I know, however, that they also thought I was a little crazy.  I never saw anyone put a bottle or can in the trash, but I know they did it.  I found the evidence, unhappy and ashamed, gone AWOL under my kitchen sink. 

I imagine my family quietly slipping the offending items behind their backs and into the garbage while casually talking to me about whether the fish were biting.  They didn't know that just as quietly, while commenting on the latest influx (or outflux) of debris, I snuck many of those cans and bottles back out and deposited them on the porch where they stood proudly at attention, awaiting my orders.

On the final morning, they marched dutifully into bags, filling two-and-a-half plastic trash bags with discarded plastic, glass, and crushed aluminum.  Were we really going to dump all that into the "limited" waste disposal system of our hosts? I just couldn't bear to do it.

So the moment of reckoning came.  Steve trudged up the stairs with his packing face on.  If you haven't seen it, you should know it's not something to trifle with. 

"Um, hon?  I've got all this recycling." I gestured to the bags that pressed hopefully against the sliding glass doors like orphan children looking for a ride home.  I want to take them with us."

He stood erect, arms straight down at his sides, and looked at me.  Everything about his body said, "You've got to be f--king kidding me."  I'm sure that at times like this, he must wish I could just be a normal person.  The kind of person that says, "When in Rome..." or "to hell with it, we're on vacation!"  Even I wish I could be that kind of person sometimes.  I think I can be really annoying with my inability to let certain things go. 

We take vacations precisely for that reason, right?--to let go.  I get that.  I showered less, I ate and drank more. I peed through my shorts in the lake for god's sake!  But some things aren't meant to be let go.  I still brushed my teeth.  I took my thyroid medicine; I fed my kids...and, I recycled. Or at least I tried to. 

In the interest of saving our marriage as it wavered precariously on that top step, I saw Steve take a long slow breath.

"Maybe in the cooler?" I ventured.  (We had a huge cooler with us).

He huffed his begrudging assent and gathered up my precious cargo.  I dared not say another word.

With our cooler "packed," we hit the road--me grinning as we rolled through the countryside, Steve probably rolling his eyes.  We stopped for a quick breakfast along the way.  When we returned to the car, I noted a distinct Eau de Frat House in the car. 

"Ew.  The car stinks!" we all agreed.  The kids and I laughed because we knew, as much as Steve might hate that, he'd never endeavor to empty the cooler now that we'd buried it under our mountain of vacation paraphernalia.   So we drove merrily down the road, in our old tin can of a car, smelling like a stale beer.  And you know what?  Even Steve smiled eventually.

At home, we dumped our cargo in the recycling bin.  I'm happy about what we were able to bring home, but I also know a lot of recyclable material slipped by me in the course of the week.  For that reason, I have a little recycling vacation advice for myself and anyone else who might want it:

-if renting a vacation home, check ahead of time to see if it has recycling services

-if not, check the local town/city to see if there is a place where you can drop recyclables during (or at the end of) your vacation.

-if not, plan to bring your recyclables home (bring appropriate containers, plan room in the car, warn spouse of your plan before that moment when he/she thinks the packing is finished).

-check ahead of time to see if your tap water will be potable. 

-if so, bring reusable water bottles that can be kept cold in the cooler at the beach, on the boat etc.

-If not, bring 5-gallon jugs of water to fill reusable water bottles.  That way, you can avoid using a gazillion individual water bottles, some of which are sure, at some point in the next millennium, to set sail right into the middle of someone else's vacation! 


  1. Incredible pictures, especially love the rainbow. So glad you had that slice of heaven. With regard to plastic, I'm still amazed that when at the grocery store - and have forgotten my reusable bags - and the cashier looks at me askance when I ask for paper instead of plastic. Doesn't everyone know we need to reduce the plastic crap floating around out there? One of my favorite video's on this subject is:
    If the link doesn't work, go to You Tube, and type in "Plastic Bag, Futurestates, ITVS" should get you there.
    Well done, Deb, as always!!

    1. thanks marcelle! the link works but I'll have to watch it when I have time.

      yes - I get the same thing at the grocery store. I also get so annoyed when they give me plastic without asking! - how is it possible that plastic is the default?!? (actually, i'm sure it's because of cost...)

      anyway, thanks for your comment! :)