“This evening, working the line in the recycling factory, the sheer grey, mind-numbing monotony propelled me into a dark metaphysical moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Author’s note: I recently discovered on my hard drive some photos and a movie that I secretly filmed while working in recycling plant in Canada in November, 2016. Wanting to understand what really happens to plastic in Canada, I took a job at the recycling factory in my city. Alas, the images were taken surreptitiously using thick workgloves and eye gogles, and turned out really rough. I was disappointed and never posted them. But now, exactly three years later, I am awed by the atmosphere they capture. I have also dug up the words I blogged that night and repost the photos as they are…
After the first few hours working the conveyor belt, my mind had settled into the grim routine. It was just me, my motions, my breath– in… out… in… out… the pieces of plastic flew by…. my arms lunging here and there with a mind of their own… grasping this, that, PET, HDPE… flicking each bit onwards to its appropriate bin. The factory was a muffled raucous roar through my ear plugs. Steadily, a meditative trance began to engulf me– I began to watch myself from a distance, lurching like a human puppet in some kind of zombie nightmare. Steadily, space and time collapsed around me into a dark web of shadows.
Had I been meditating in a forest I suppose I would have sensed a web of light– a transcendent spiritual connection to the tapestry of life around me.
But this was a factory. This was different.
There beside the conveyor belt, I was immersed in the Great River of Consumption. As the endless remnants of consumerism hurtled by me, I felt my connection to the grey great industrial cosmos: I could feel the rattle of the other factories, the other conveyor belts, the chasmic warehouses, the vast host of assembly lines webbing around the world. I suddenly felt in my soul the indutrial farms, the polystyrene production plants, the petroleum rigs sucking the depths of the ocean, the borg-esque oil refineries glowing in the night. I could feel the wind and smell the exhaust of the endless flow of cargo trucks on midnight super highways. I could feel the ocean cut by the container ships with their unending haul of giant colored crates… all part of this river of plastic bits being modified by my hands.
As I would move the PET bottle off the conveyor, I would sense my ineffable role in the destiny of its molecules. As I would move a styrofoam meat package, I would also sense the fridge it had once sat, the family that had emptied it, the purchase in the colossal super market, the jolting journey in the warehouse distribution center. I could feel the animals in their infinite pens, the massive fields of mono-crops, the fish farms, the poultry in their great gray halls of egg and flesh (can we even call them ‘chickens’ still?). I could sense the fertilizers, the pesticides the hormones, the fences and walls that guided and propelled this river on my straight and narrow conveyor.
As the machines ground and spun around me, vents hissing and motors whirring, I could sense my fellow humans in far off factories, methodologically assembling, packing, sealing-up the very products that now sped by me in their tattered consumed remnants.
Only the call for lunch-break broke the spell.
Silent and numb from the noisy monotony we stumbled into the staff quarters for a few precious moments of human companionship– or, often than naught– silence.
Yet, there in our break-room, surely like countless other factory break-rooms around the world, stood two sentinels of the system. The beverage and vending machines offered us the very products that we had just been processing. Thirsty, compelled by the glowing colors, I wandered over. I watched from a distance as the man in the overalls, as a I, fished into my pocket and bought a coke. I watched as the very wages that I gleaned from working the line made it all spin faster and faster.
After downing the pop, I stared at the empty can. When the bell rang to get back to work, I tucked it into my overalls, walked back to the line and tossed it into the pile.
A realization washed over me, like the glistening rays of dawn after a long cold night…
We can do way better than this.
Stay posted… I have a couple other essays and articles from my time in the recycling plant that I will post shortly.