I threw away a piece of haunted plastic yesterday, but the ghost has not yet left me.
Probably a bit of context is in order. Several months ago, I ordered a batch of new checks from my check publisher of choice. I originally selected this publisher through the stringent process of asking my bank to give me a book of checks as cheaply as humanly possible. The checks do not have fancy pictures of cats or superheroes or whatever on them. They are financial instruments used–for the most part–to give money to institutions I am at best indifferent to and who will not be looking at the cats or superheroes in any case, so why bother? I suppose I could use them to get a brief reminder of who I am and what I care about every time I fill out my bills, but if I ever reach a point in my life where I need my financial instruments to tell me who I am, I ought probably give up on the whole “even trying” thing anyway.
I thought I knew the script for check ordering. I fill out the little form, turn it into the bank, and about a week later a paper-wrapped parcel containing a rectangular cardboard box comes in the mail. This was all acceptable to me, so it threw me for a bit of a loop when a stern-looking forest-green plastic envelope arrived instead. I assume that the shift in package shape was done to make it so the check mailers could be automatically processed like normal envelopes by the USPS, thus avoiding the additional postage that small rectangular boxes are subject to. Understanding the reasoning behind it, however, did not stop my brain from pitching a fit. It is very easy to put me off my game when my routines are disrupted. There was even a moment where I was primed to send the whole thing back for being not what I ordered, until I realized that I should just calm down and take stock of the contents.
In fact, the contents were nearly identical. They had stealthily cut down on the number of checks per booklet, which was a problem not only because it represented an underhanded form of cost savings but also because it threw the check numbers out of sync so that each book no longer ends on a nice round number. Whatever. That wasn’t really the problem.
The problem was that damned plastic sleeve.
The plastic sleeve, as already mentioned, was a dark green color. It was glowingly advertised as “ecologically friendly” for reasons I could not possibly fathom at the time. I am not sure how easy it is to recycle the coated cardboard boxes that my checks used to come in–probably not very–but I thought that it must be easier to recycle cardboard of any kind than slick postal-grade plastic. I did check it all over for some sort of recycling information that could tell me whether or not the single-stream recyclers in Madison could do anything with it, but found nothing. It bothers me to try and recycle things of uncertain recyclability, because I have this mental picture of an angry-looking recycling plant worker who will have his day ruined by me personally because I threw an unrecyclable plastic sleeve into the recycling bin.
“Judas Priest!” the imaginary angry plant worker says, holding up the plastic sleeve and shaking it for emphasis. “Those assholes in the city center keep trying to recycle these non-recyclable plastic sleeves! I hate those guys! They completely mess up the recycling machine!” (I have a very hazy grasp of what actually goes on at a municipal recycling plant, so I have imagined this large, clattering machine that is very easy to render nonfunctional with improperly-recycled waste.) This is one of the worst sorts of social conflict for me, and it is for much the same reason that H.P. Lovecraft can effectively scare you buy saying, “Guys guys guys, omigosh, this thing was so scary that I can’t even describe how scary it was.” My brain creates the perfect angry man to be angry at me about something I did, and it will not let go of the image.
Anyway. Here’s the point of this whole stupid blog post. After studying the envelope all over for recycling information, I finally find what I’m looking for, the reason that the plastic sleeve is touted as “environmentally friendly.” Near the top, where you are to open the package and remove the checks, there is an admonition that reads as follows:
“Cut carefully to create a reusable sleeve!”
And I was stuck. The sleeve wasn’t inherently environmentally friendly. The company had just made me responsible for figuring out a way to make it so.
Ladies and gentlemen, the haunted chain letter, greenwashed. The unasked mailing that obligates you, the recipient, to take some action, lest some dread consequence be visited upon you. The unspecified but terrible and must-be-avoided bad luck of the chain letter has been replaced by the grim specter of wholesale destruction of the ecosystem, but in either case, it is my responsibility to prevent.
The funny thing is, I had been cheerfully reusing the small cardboard boxes they used to send the checks in for quite some time without a second thought as to the relative ecological soundness of the act. They were of a useful size for certain specific purposes, and as an obsessive-compulsive dude with very mild hoarding tendencies, I don’t like to throw things away for no reason. But by telling me in no uncertain terms that they were making me responsible for this whole situation, they threw my anxiety into high gear. I immediately set about trying to think of ideas for how I would use this mailing sleeve for some other purpose. It became totally ridiculous, because it was a stiff green plastic sleeve the size of a large envelope, and I could not figure out a single thing to do with it. Cardboard boxes are useful. To pick a completely random example that is certain to be universally applicable to all of you, they can be used to store your spare My Little Pony figurines, the ones you bought because they came in a three-pack with Rainbow Dash and Gilda (the ones you actually wanted) but that you didn’t really care about for their own sake. Boxes are boxes. You know what to do with a box.
The stupid stiff plastic sleeve, however, was defying all efforts at assigning it a purpose. It couldn’t be turned inside out, so I couldn’t use it to pick up dog mess. It was not resealable (it had to be physically cut open in the first place) so I couldn’t use it to store small fiddly items. Obviously it was not certifiably food-safe, so leftovers of any kind were a no-go. It wasn’t airtight. It wasn’t watertight. It was literally one of the most useless things I had in my possession.
But I held on to it, for months, because that envelope was haunted with a duty. “Reuse this sleeve.”
Why do people insist on shackling others, however trivially? Why not make the sleeve out of blue plastic and say, “This sleeve allows us to save on postage”? I would actually enjoy sharing in their tiny triumph. I would honestly say, “Wow, that’s clever and efficient! They figured out a way to make their check mailers pass through automatic letter processors, thus saving time and money!” I would have thrown the damn sleeve away a long time ago and that would have been that. But instead, it’s “Dispose of this chain letter at your own peril.” This world is full of people who carelessly broadcast curses and I am sick to death of it.
Last night, in a fit of frustration over a writing project that is not going well (due to an entirely separate basket of neuroses that would require another whole post to explain) I located the sleeve and tossed it into my bedroom wastebasket. I am tired of being haunted by foreign ghosts. I am already haunted by too many ghosts of my own devising. The garbage man is not scary, like the recycling man is. The garbage man takes all. He does not judge.
It is still sitting there, in the wastebasket, right next to my bed. Slick, shiny and green. It mocks me for my failure every time I glance at it. I should just throw it away in the kitchen garbage, cover it up with used plastic wrap and non-compost food waste and all the other things that I feel just slightly guilty about discarding, make it go away forever.
I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t yet make it unrecoverable.
I might need that sleeve someday.