Burn, baby, burn

My garbage man is mad at me.

Me! The most conscientious sorter of waste products in the history of Ipswich, Massachusetts.

I am a devotee of the Ipswich Local News’ environmentalist columnist Paula Jones, who patiently and repeatedly teaches us about sorting our plastics from our pistachio shells. I obey Paula’s every word. I am a dues-paying curbside-composter. I peel the labels off my mangos before tossing the skins. At the end of a carton of eggs, I debate its disposal destination: Garbage? Recycling? Compost? The bag of non-recyclable film plastics hanging in my pantry? Or maybe slather it with organic mustard and munch it during Sunday Night Football? That’s it, five options. I don’t have the patience for any more.

We have so many environmentally superior options for disposing of our waste, we Brendels can go weekswithout filling our kitchen garbage can. Ipswich garbage-collectors are in danger of losing their jobs because there’s so seldom anything to collect at our place. The lucky guys who draw outer Linebrook Road duty spend their workdays riding on the back of the truck, listening to NPR on their earbuds and chuckling at their good fortune.

So why is my garbage man mad at me?

Because of bittersweet.

Bittersweet is that invasive vine, Celastrus orbiculatus, that people used to make those twisty holiday wreaths from. It’s so deadly, it’s illegal to sell it in Massachusetts today. When you see a tall, majestic New England tree coiled in beautiful vines, that’s bittersweet literally strangling it.

Before long, the bittersweet climbs to the top of the tree and spreads its leaves from its dozens of shoots over the top of its host, cutting off sunlight, killing the entire tree. Climate change is slow; bittersweet is fast. Even faster because birds disperse its seeds, and new vicious little bittersweet babies pop up like crazy all over the place.

Snip bittersweet with shears, hack at it with a saw, yank it out by its roots; but the question of the remains remains: Where should this go?

I can’t dump this stuff in the old compost heap at the corner of my property. The nasty little berries of the fallen bittersweet will take hold and start a whole new environmental crisis. That’s why they call it bitter.

Likewise for dumping my bittersweet in my curbside compost bin. Couldn’t this evil eventually leach out from the compost into other Ipswich curbside composting members’ properties? Yes. Bittersweet is a demon. Kill bittersweet? Forget about it. Google “bittersweet” and you’ll find 27.46 million webpages of despair. Bittersweet cannot be composted.

So it seemed my best option would be the good old-fashioned standard weekly garbage pickup. I stuffed the hacked-down tangle of bittersweet vines into one of those leaves-I-raked bags and dumped it in the bin like any ordinary bag of trash.

On garbage pickup day, however, my lovely garbage-collector took the other contents of our garbage bin and left the pernicious bag of bittersweet behind.

I adore my garbageman; I salute the effort, I support the cause. I don’t want to damage this relationship. So the next week, I took certain steps. I certified the bittersweet as “legal” and “approved,” by stuffing it all into one of those official Ipswich “overthrow” bags — $2 each, sold in rolls of five (at Aubuchon, Conley’s, Cumbie’s, DJ’s, Richdale, Shaw’s, and Tedford’s).

Also a non-starter. My beloved spurned me again. Left my bag at the curb. He wasn’t fooled by the overthrow bag I’d hidden my bittersweet in. The spiny twigs were poking out through the thin veneer of the bag, sneering silently to my dear garbageman: “Take me and you’re fired!” It’s the law: Leaf trash ain’t ordinary trash. Leaf trash must be composted, not hauled off and incinerated like ordinary Ipswich rubbish.

The truth is that bittersweet doesn’t even qualify for our annual Curbside Leaf Pickup Week, one of our town’s most cherished holidays, which happens each year, the week before Thanksgiving. (Hey! We’re in luck! That’s this week!) If bittersweet is included your curbside leaf bag, it winds up in the compost stream — and the seeds poison the gardens of countless other New Englanders. Again: Bittersweet cannot be composted.

The only proper end for bittersweet — the vines, which carry the berries, which carry the seeds, which carry the poison to our other vegetation — is death by fire. If your garbage pickup person can’t be tricked, bribed, or threatened into taking your cut-down bittersweet (so it can eventually be incinerated), then you’ve got to burn it yourself.

My clever wife follows the old New England tradition of twisting bittersweet vines into wreaths, then using them as fire-starters in our fireplace. She also recommends adding demon scarecrow decorations, “to give them a truly country-chic look.” These would have been especially popular last month in Salem. If only I had planned in advance to monetize this idea.

This whole episode has also taken a toll on my relationship with my garbageman. I hope to patch things up, but you never know with these things. Before long, it may be a tearful late-night argument over disposal of foil gift wrap.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where his antique house is being slowly strangled by vegetation. Take a look at Doug, at least while you’re able, at DougBrendel.com.

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