Priorities in our Activism – Part 1

Lately I’ve been in several situations and conversations that have brought home for me an important shift in how I as an activist (and many other activists) consider my priorities and view my task.

I stumbled into The Situation some months back. With the Green Team we have been focusing on recycling. At the beginning of the school year one of our two elementary schools went online with deep recycling. That’s recycling each and every scrap of paper and plastic, drastically reducing the school’s waste stream (you can see the posters we put up here). After testing that system for a couple of months we started the system at the school the other elementary school, which I represent.

It was clear that most of the bulk of the remaining trash bags was styrofoam trays. That one school consumes (and trashes) no less than 265 of these, every day! Our town’s recycling center does not take  these. So I thought I and a small group of parents could possibly collect these trays ourselves and bring them to a recycler int he neighborhood that does. But before I started rounding up volunteers I needed to find out what this entailed.  So I started the system while I was there anyway, during lunch, for two weeks, training the kids and the staff.

It entailed the following:

  1. the kids shake the food off the trays and putting them into a bin – not a problem.
  2. custodian stores bags with trays in bins until pickup by a parent at the end of every school day (while they pick up their kid). I didn’t find this much of a problem. True, walking from school to our home with a pair of bulky (though feather-light) trash bags raised some eyebrows, but I thought: Yes, a statement!
  3. volunteer takes trays home and there rinses them clean. Oil and dressing and some food can stay, but no lettuce leaves, or too many crumbs, etc. This is where I lost some steam, when I tried to get the mashed potatoes and chicken stew (I detest the smell and taste of boiled chicken!) off by dipping the trays into the hot soapy water in my sink. Took me 40 minutes. Still, I had Beethoven on!
  4. volunteer neatly stacks cleaned trays and brings them to my house where I store them until once-a-week drop-off by me. After two days these towers of foam and air already took up a lot of space on my porch (enclosed – the critters would go wild if I left them in the open). They also go stinky. Not good…

It was discouraging, but I persevered, trying to find the best methods of shaking,  rinsing, storing… Then the Situation arrived.

I thought if I could wash them and store them at the school I could at least dispense with tasks 1. and 2.  I arrived 15 minutes before dismissal and began. The only place available to do the rinsing was a custodian closet with a floor sink. It was so small I bumped into things. It smelled of cleaning chemicals. I  also didn’t want to make work for the custodian so was overly careful not to spill and splash. It was dark. It was lonely. I must already have been thinking “this isn’t right” because I closed the door so no one could see what I was doing from the corridor. Then the bell rang. I poked my head out the door and called Amie before she ran outside.

She came into the little room, I closed the door behind her and she looked at the scene in dismay.

What are you doing? she asked with a frown.

I explained. She sighed, Oh Mama!

That tone, half pitiful, half ashamed, said it all. Time to ditch this project! Time to prioritize!

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