The Waste Land

 April Is the Cruelest Month on Hazardous Waste Day


 Published in the Sunday New York Times on April 12, 1998


Last September, I was sitting in my 1995 Nissan Maxima on the entrance road to Bergen Community College, waiting for my car to explode. Ahead of me were more than 400 cars manned by drivers doing exactly the same thing. Our cars were loaded up, Beverly Hillbillies-style, with what New Jersey officially calls Household Hazardous Waste: old aerosol cans, batteries, barbecue propane tanks, photographic chemicals, varnishes and such.

For 362 days each year, Bergen County residents store these potential powder kegs in their homes. But three days each year (next Sunday, June 28 and September 13 this year), the Bergen County Utility Authority allows us to haul our hazardous waste to the campus of Bergen Community College. The result? A Brigadoon-like Superfund site.

Since Household Hazardous Waste Collection Days are rarer than sashimi, they have become major events. The September 15, 1997 affair involved more than 70 workers, along with a multitude of tanker trucks, dump trucks, Dumpsters and forklifts. Over 2,600 cars converged on the campus that day and dropped off goodies like 16,000 pounds of household batteries, 4,900 gallons of waste oil and 650 propane gas cylinders.

Imagine an event of this size and complexity organized in a way that combines the worst elements of motor vehicle inspection and the Woodstock Music Festival. That will give you some idea of why it took more than 30 minutes in line before I reached the first in what turned out to be a succession of workers.

The worker said to me, “Proof of Bergen County residency, please.”

“Anyone voluntarily waiting on this line,” I replied, “is either from Bergen County or Pluto.”

He grinned and handed me a small red ticket, the kind that you wind up with after being cornered by a volunteer selling 50-50 raffle tickets. Fifteen minutes later and 10 feet further along, I pulled up to a second worker.

“Ticket please,” he said with a straight face. I started to open my mouth, but he shook his head and said, “Don’t ask. Nobody knows why.”

Twenty minutes later, I finally reached the disposal area. Suddenly, the pace accelerated from a slo-mo version of Wall Street Week to a pit stop at the Daytona Speedway. A worker clad in an orange-and-yellow hazard vest and wheeling a multi-shelf cart raced over to my car. He inspected my stash, mentally calculating the best way to unload it in record time. He seemed pleased when he concluded that mine was a simple load, consisting mainly of alkaline batteries, furniture refinisher and latex paint.

The leaking batteries, exhausted from numerous rechargings, lacked the energy to mount another assault on my 3-year old daughter’s armada of spinning, giggling, blinking toys. The ancient, unopened cans of Holmer Formsby’s Furniture Refinisher proved beyond any doubt that I don’t have time to dust my furniture, let alone refinish it.

And the latex paint? Turns out that only oil-based paint is considered hazardous. As the pit-stop worker explained, “You can dispose of latex paint by air-drying it and throwing the solid residue in your regular garbage.”

I started to tell him, “My secret for turning latex paint into a solid lies in my inept efforts to put the lid back on the can as tightly as humanly possible.” But before I finished the sentence, he had finished unloading my car and was on to the next.

Given my more than an hour waiting in line, I could understand why a smaller percentage of Bergen Countyhouseholds come out each year for Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day than vote in local school board elections. But the long line did give me plenty of time to dream about what this event would be like if Home Depot or Federal Express were running it. In my dream, Joel I. Klein, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Federal antitrust division, calls a press conference and announces, “We’re through preventing companies from giving customers better products and services at lower prices. As of today, we’re going after the real monopolies in this country: the public bureaus, boards, agencies and authorities that our citizens have effectively no choice but to deal with.”

I’ll have lots of time to continue this dream. My car is due for inspection in June.