The forty-liter clear plastic bag bulged and looked ready to burst, its surface stretched taut like the skin of a drum over the contours of its irregular contents. Brown scabs of packing tape mended it in several places, holding it together and preventing it from further splitting where sharp edges had ruptured the thin polyethylene.
It was like this every week. The bag of plastic recycling comically large and overstuffed to bursting, like a farcical suitcase. Only instead of personal belongings, it contained the rinsed plastic trays and wrappers from another week of eating almost exclusively from the convenience store and the ready-to-eat section of the supermarket.
Most of the containers never held anything particularly good or nutritious or even interesting. Instead, their value was derived from a combination of affordability and availability.
Most important was that they were what could still be bought after work, when everything was already picked over at the lone supermarket that was still open, where a loose, bleary-eyed crowd of office workers shuffled listlessly behind the clerk with the printer that spat out discount stickers. Freshly stickered packages were snapped up immediately, regardless of what they contained.
It was not uncommon to see some bedraggled customer pick up a package of food and stare at it blankly for an extended period, their expressionlessness a reflection of their inner state as they tried to remember what it was they were meant to be thinking about.
A five or ten percent discount never did much to improve the taste of limp, wet pasta salad and couldn’t remedy the texture of fried foods long since congealed in the refrigerator case. All the little yellow stickers really did was to save you a few yen in the course of making an easier job of selecting a sad dinner from a sad array of options.
Back at home, supposed staple foods aged into retirement in the refrigerator instead of being used, all while the recycling built up like this every week. I wanted to cook. I liked cooking. But after every split shift, there was neither sufficient energy nor spirit left to accommodate even the most basic cooking.
It was a tremendously imbalanced lifestyle, as further evidenced by the bag of aluminum cans that grew in tandem with the plastics. The cans were a mix of empties formerly containing black coffee, energy drinks, and canned highballs. Evidence of the endless cycle of alternately chasing wakefulness and sleep, never getting enough of one before the clock said it was time to switch to pursuing the other.
Some weeks, those bags seemed to take up as much space in that tiny apartment as I did. Two sullen companions sulking quietly as they crouched on either side of my garbage can.
Every Tuesday night, I took out the recycling, usually late at night so I wouldn’t have to remember in the morning before work. As I carried it down from the second floor, the bag of plastics crinkled and popped loudly, while the cans clanked and buckled as they bumped against my legs. All of these sounds were amplified greatly in my head by my desire, equally awkward and intense, not to disturb my neighbors.
When I returned to the apartment, my living space felt slightly but palpably more spacious. This lasted for a couple of days and was a highly valued sensation in a life that featured precious little slack or breathing room.
Nothing seemed to change much back then, not for a long time. My kitchen drying rack was more often filled with freshly rinsed food trays than with actual dishes, and my spare time more often filled with solo activities than with anything social.
That was years ago now, and while my recycling bag still fills up, it’s with the packaging from cooking for two, and it’s been a long, long time since I last followed a supermarket clerk, waiting on discount stickers to be applied to food I didn’t really want.