The pendulant swing of the Little Trees air freshener hung on the rear view mirror of the car ahead of me percolated a frown across my face. Having lived in Houston, Texas, for almost nine years, I have grown accustomed to sitting in traffic. It’s the unofficial and most inclusive pastime of the city; everybody gets to play, whether you want to or not. Wedged as I was between two freeways in the middle of town, both equally clogged with Saturday afternoon traffic, I wasn’t feeling particularly sporting, and my irrational prejudice against Little Trees air fresheners grated on my patience.
An older woman wearing a high-visibility, long-sleeved shirt walked briskly past my car along the sidewalk-less curb. It was the third time she’d passed me in the last ten minutes, so I took the opportunity to admire the deftness of her steps. She appeared to have navigated this route before and skillfully avoided the cracked concrete and sunken, weed-covered sod along her path.
“I could never be that brave,” I thought. Being a pedestrian in Houston is a decidedly hazardous undertaking. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 103 pedestrians were killed in 2018, the last year of record, within the county encompassing Houston and its surrounding cities. However, that statistic is easy to understand when you consider that, despite the city buses that roam the major thoroughfares and the hint of a rail system downtown, much of the city is untouched by public transportation. If you’re going somewhere in Houston, you’re probably in a car. Judging by the number of roadside memorials, watching for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists is not the collective strong suit of Houston motorists. As it was, I was going nowhere quickly, so I watched for the flashes of high-vis yellow between the vehicles ahead of me over the edge of my mask since the woman had passed me yet again.
In-between creeping the car forward every few minutes, I ruminated on the fact that my stubborn refusal to give up certain behaviors had landed me in my present predicament. I was an avid recycler as a kid; the neon, recycle-themed parachute pants my mom made for me in the 1990s advertised as much back then. I no longer have those pants, unfortunately, but have only become increasingly militant over the years about reducing my personal carbon footprint, reusing what I can, hopefully recycling everything else and, maybe uniquely, refusing to live in a way that many would consider traditional.
Much to the bemusement of any house guests and many members AAPG staff, I only own enough furniture to make my three-bedroom condo functional. My kitchen dinette set, for example, is a folding card table and chairs that my sister purchased after becoming exasperated with having to eat standing up when she briefly lived with me. I still eat standing up, but the cat does enjoy using the table and chairs as a vaulting platform. My sister also insisted on hanging a few pictures to make the living room less spartan. My contribution to the living space is piles of paper, aluminum, glass, batteries, lightbulbs, plastic, broken or outdated appliances and textiles, all waiting for me to feel motivated to bring them to a recycling facility.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a latent expression of mental illness, you’re not wrong, but the anatomy of my longstanding anxiety aside, there are more practical reasons for this situation. The city’s curbside recycling program doesn’t serve my area and many homeowners in my community are on a fixed income so we collectively can’t afford a private service. Biweekly treks to the nearest neighborhood repository, some 20 minutes away by car, have become the norm, even during the pandemic. However, some materials are only accepted at specific recycling centers and, due to the ironic presence of polystyrene packaging in a recycling trash can my sister bought as a gift to abate my pile-making habit, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam in an effort to get to one of the two facilities in the city that accepts Plastic No. 6.
Lest it seem to be otherwise, the hypocrisy of idling a gasoline-powered vehicle while attempting to go to a recycling center is not lost on me. This piece is not a quest for accolades, nor do I deserve them. I’m acutely aware that I’m doing very little to make a genuine impact on carbon emissions and, worse, I’m probably just transferring the problem to someone else. Just because I didn’t see the emissions doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I try to eat a mostly plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean all the produce was grown sustainably. Just because you have a Little Trees air freshener doesn’t mean your car doesn’t stink. Just because I care about the world around me, and the organisms in it, doesn’t mean I really make a difference.
Aspiring for Something Better
I would love to live where energy is clean, renewable and consistently available, where there’s recycling and composting bins on every corner, where packaging materials, affordable housing and clothing are made from reusable materials, and everyone has access to cheap and reliable mass transportation, but I don’t, and I probably never will. I live in a gritty concrete jungle, like so many of us do. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to be better. Renewable sources of energy will continue to grow in prominence and availability, and hydrocarbons will help us create that reality, even as many of my friends and neighbors feel wounded by the perceived failure of clean energy during recent extreme weather events. With so many huddled around natural gas fireplaces for survival as temperatures dropped well below freezing during the February 2021 snowstorm, the smug among us gloated that wind power had failed Texans. Years of electrical deregulation and lack of proactive winterization of critical grid infrastructure – not renewables – failed Texans that week. In the end, we should be motivated to ensure that such a disaster doesn’t happen again by working together to put policies and fail-safes in place that utilize the diversity of our energy assets, and our knowledge of them, to their fullest potential. Energy security is strengthened by variety and, by continuing to demand a sustainable future, in all its forms, we can gradually move the needle toward a slightly less gritty existence. That thought gives me purpose, and that purpose prevents me from giving up.
Upon finally arriving at the recycling center, I enthusiastically greet the city employee who has requested to take my temperature. As another employee opens my car’s tailgate to remove the two pieces of polystyrene, I glance in the rearview mirror and register a glint of confusion across his brow.
“Is this all you have?” he yells through the car at the back of my head.
“For now,” I yell in return, before nodding my thanks to the temperature taker and waving to the other employees.
In truth, this was the second recycling center I had visited today, having taken another load of recyclables to my usual facility earlier in the morning. I’m something of a regular there and demonstrate my appreciation for their work similarly. I may not be the “greenest” person who ever was, but I hope frequently patronizing these locations means there will be more of them in the future, because little old ladies deserve a walk free from a constant plume of car exhaust. There’s no air freshener for that, but your choices may help insure we wouldn’t need one.
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