Woog’s World / Westport falling behind on trains, recycling
Back in the day — the day when men wore gray flannel suits, took trains to New York from Saugatuck station, had three-martini lunches, huddled in the bar car on the way home, rolled off and across the street to Mario’s, had another martini, then drove home — the trip to Grand Central took an hour.
It wasn’t easy. New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad cars were uncomfortable. The heat did not always work in winter; air conditioning was even less predictable in summer.
Conditions went downhill when Penn Central took over; they deteriorated even further under its successor, Conrail.
But, barring delays, you could still depend on one thing: The train took an hour between Westport and New York.
Decades later — decades that brought us self-driving cars, unparalleled airline safety, and bullet trains that whisk passengers from here to there (except in the U.S.) at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour — it now takes anywhere from an hour and nine minutes, to an hour and 15, to make that same journey.
In other words, despite all the advances of the past half century — super-computers, sophisticated technology, the ability to send a spacecraft into interstellar space — today’s commuter spends up to 25 percent more time on the train per ride than her father and grandfather did, back in the era of rotary phones, Edsels and Mario’s.
It is not easy to roll back the tide of progress. Metro-North, take a bow!
Yet train travel is not the only area in which Westport has raced fearlessly backward. We’ve also missed the boat on recycling.
Once upon a time, we threw our trash — old train tickets, martini mixers, whatever — in garbage cans. I don’t even think we lined the cans with trash bags. Once or twice a week, collectors (we called them “garbagemen”) hauled it all away.
It did not go far. Westport’s town dump was located — conveniently, inelegantly, odoriferously — in the center of town. It sat right next to Jesup Green, the Saugatuck River and a Little League field. That’s right: Kids played baseball while seagulls swooped and pooped overhead.
For reasons lost to history, etiquette expert Amy Vanderbilt once held a tea party atop our town dump. Maybe she’d had a few too many martinis on the train ride from New York. Whatever.
As the years passed, Westporters grew more conscious of our garbage. We moved the dump to the Sherwood Island Connector, built large structures to house huge bins for different types of recycling, and renamed it a “transfer station.”
At home, we began separating everything: cardboard, plastic, food scraps. We scrupulously put newspapers in blue bins. We patted ourselves on the back for saving the world, one bottle at a time.
And then we stopped doing it. “Single-stream recycling” freed us from thinking about the stuff we threw out. Once again, we could put (pretty much) anything into the trash.
Except we grew careless. We started tossing everything in there. It was out of sight, out of mind.
Until it got to China. The Chinese became the United States’ No. 1 customer of recycling waste. But when too much of one material contaminated the rest of it, they closed the lid. Prices skyrocketed. We now pay $65 a ton to get rid of our 3,300 tons of recyclable waste (though not all is actually recycled).
We used to congratulate ourselves for our stewardship of the earth. Now we’ve charged backward. One of the few things we do better is take our newspapers off the train and deposit them in bins in the Grand Central tunnel. So there’s that.
Of course, Connecticut’s five-cent deposit law for recycling bottles and cans has been good for the environment. If we don’t take them ourselves to recycling machines at supermarkets, someone much more down on their luck salvages them from trash cans and does it for us. The shoulders of Westport roads are much freer of litter than they used to be.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for our athletic fields. Discarded water bottles lie everywhere (including the big reusable ones). The more we care about hydration, the less we care about each other and the earth.
We’ve backslid in other areas too. Westport was the first municipality east of the Mississippi River to ban plastic bags. But fewer people use cloth ones these days. And too many grocery stores — even Trader Joe’s, which really should know better — routinely double-bag with paper.
It’s enough to drive a person to drink. Except Mario’s is closed, and so is the bar car, on that much-longer-than-before train ride home from the city.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.