I thought I was doing something that everyone could get behind.
It's amazing what you notice when you look downward. At my old job, I started seeing lots of recyclables in people's garbage cans. So I started taking them out, and after a while I was in everyone's trash.
And you should've seen the quantity of stuff I recycled every night over the months. Glass and plastic bottles, cans, plastic grocery bags, lithium batteries, binders that students could use, CDs and DVDs, cereal and Kleenex boxes, not to mention reams of paper. This despite the abundant recycling bins I'd put all over the room.
Now, you'd think that once you throw stuff away, that means you don't want it anymore, right? You've discarded it. But when I started digging through that stuff, all hell broke loose.
It's not like I loitered, looking for personal information. I got in and got out as quickly as possible. If people found me rooting in their trash, reactions ranged from embarrassment to surprise to approval.
I did get a few weird, mean looks, but I didn't know the power of the displeased minority until my manager told me I had to stop my garbage-digging. It totally shocked me! I said that people had been thanking and praising me.
We settled on this: People would put a gold sticker on their trash can if it was OK for me to go through it. That worked well; there were lots of stickers and pats on the back. Everything was going along fine for almost a year.
Then one day a different manager said he wanted to talk to me. There were still a few people who said I was invading their personal space. He gave me a direct order -- he used those exact words -- to stop, regardless of whether people had a sticker or had expressly told me I could look in their trash.
So I came up with a new strategy: I'd wait until the janitor emptied the smaller trash cans into his big gray cart, then go through that. Or I'd go to the basement and sort garbage there.
But then came layoffs. Not only was I restricted at the office, I wasn't at the office at all.
People tell me I made a big difference and changed some habits -- and I know I did in some cases. But the whole thing was an awakening. I went in a bit naive and came out a bit cynical.
So now what do I do? I go to neighborhood festivals, block parties and sporting events, stand next to "disposal stations" that I set up, and help people sort. Afterward we weigh and compare the compostables, recycling and trash. I'm stopping the trash before it becomes trash.
And trash never complains I'm invading its personal space.
Nancy Lo, a Minneapolis writer, promotes waste reduction at The Trashbasher. Later this month she will begin working with Minnesota GreenCorps, an AmeriCorps program focused on environmental projects.