Garbage Gone Wild

One day last year, our progressive California city distributed small green plastic compost bins designed to collect kitchen scraps and create marital disharmony. While I was eager to contribute to the municipal composting effort, my husband, being the hygienic sort, was less so. He ignored the little green bin, which was not, after a while, easy to do. Owing to my failure to empty the little bin into its bigger counterpart each Monday when the trashmen came, what was going on inside was not composting, but garden-variety rotting and stinking.

Ed banished the bin to the deck. Now that I couldn’t smell it, I would forget about it for weeks on end. The city was not so much composting as creating subsidized housing for molds and flies and their little squirming children.

One day I saw Ed coming up the driveway holding, at arm’s length, what we had come to call the maggot zoo. He was approaching the trio of wheeled garbage, recycling and compost toter bins lined up alongside our house. "Which bin do you use for bins?" he said.

So we went back to our old ways: Ed using the in-sink Disposall, and me, having heard this was bad for our waterways, scraping the plates into the kitchen trash. Then we came upon a product called the Touchless Trashcan. Its lid had an "infrared sensor eye" that enabled it to sense your approaching hand and automatically open for you. "It is convenient to use, and it is very hygienic," said the packaging. We succumbed.

The Touchless Trashcan came in three pieces and included a four-page user manual. One piece, the enigmatic Smart Retainer Ring, required eight steps to install and took up an entire page of the manual. The page was captioned "How Does Smart Retainer Ring Work?" The first thing to hit the bottom of our new can was the user manual. "I refuse," said Ed, "to read a garbage can instruction manual."

The Retainer Ring, we finally figured out, had nothing to do with the automatic lid opener. Its purpose was to prevent the top of the bag from sticking out in an unsightly manner. And also to turn the task of changing the garbage bag into a ten-minute ordeal involving, quoting Ed, "an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic."

Ed stuck a bag into the can, folded its top over the edge in the usual way and dangled the Smart Retainer Ring over the can. "Oops. I inadvertently threw the Smart Retainer Ring away."

We lowered the automated top onto the bin and switched on the infrared sensor eye. For three or four minutes, throwing things away was a delightful novelty.

Like many infatuations, that of a touchless trash can and its owners soon sours. For us, it happened that night after dinner. The sensor eye couldn’t see very far, and so the lid tended to pop open at the last second, knocking garbage out of your hand and to the floor. I understood why this was happening, but it came across as impertinence. Also, since the eye didn’t sense garbage per se but rather the heat of your hand, it ignored things like platters and dustpans. Ed came in one day to see me moving the dustpan over the lid in a series of slow, priestly motions, a ritual that became known as "the blessing of the refuse."

Some weeks later, the touchless can took to intermittently popping open its lid when one of us passed by. Sometimes I’d catch Ed standing there, staring at it. "What does it want?" he’d say.

I had a different interpretation. "It’s trying to imply that you and I are garbage."

Ed didn’t believe this. "Maybe it just wants to be touched." Owing to the number of times it had slapped fish heads or yogurt lids out of my hand, its top and sides were spattered with food yuck, and neither of us was willing to test Ed’s theory and embrace Touchless Trashcan.

In the end, the automated touchless trash can was replaced by the old-fashioned kind of touchless trash can — the kind that opens with a foot pedal. It requires no batteries, and if it has an opinion about its owners, it keeps it to itself.