THE local transit authorities probably don't know it, but their trains and buses are starting to haul trash. Every week or so, for example, Marie Tomao hoists her trash bags onto a rapid transit car in New Jersey for the trip under the Hudson River and brings them to the Village Green recycling center in lower Manhattan, where she does her part to cut the nation's garbage glut.
``I don't know if it's legal,'' Ms. Tomao says. ``Trash is trash.''
But trash is also one national crisis that people take very personally. So they come from Brooklyn, Queens, even New Jersey, to Manhattan's only full-scale recycling center. Their efforts suggest that at least some Americans are more willing to endure a little inconvenience than politicians give them credit for.
``At this point, the big picture is a bit more important than the little picture,'' says Aaron Clapp, sorting his bottles at Village Green one morning in early July.
A new city law requires residents to bundle their newspapers and - in some neighborhoods - separate metal and glass. Within four years, city officials hope to recycle 40 percent of the city's waste. It is now common to see the Times and The New Yorker tied neatly at the curb on trash day. (The city's dailies have drawn criticism, though, for lagging behind in the use of recycled paper.)
``We are talking about a major change in the way people deal with their waste,'' says Vito Turso, a spokesman for the Department of Sanitation. Mr. Turso says compliance with the new law is about 60 percent.
But the Village Green people are on the front edge of the curve. They make space for old detergent bottles and empty tuna-fish cans in tiny apartments, schlep the trash by subway or in baby strollers. Then they sort it out with exacting precision: styrene here, polyethelene there, plastic bottle caps and metal in their respective containers.
``This is a pain in the neck,'' says a woman from Brooklyn who identifies herself simply as ``Susan,'' lamenting the lack of a center closer to home. ``I hope pretty soon we are going to have a place.''
In dress and demeanor, Susan seems more like Archie Bunker's neighbor than a stereotypical ecology freak. Yet she pays $7.50 round trip on the bus from her Bay Ridge neighborhood near the Verazano Narrows Bridge. ``I felt so guilty about throwing away bottles,'' she says, depositing her styrene salad-bar containers into the appropriate bag. ``I get the salad bar a lot. All these containers. I was feeling guilty.''
THOSE who think recycling is just a trendy concern of the affluent could profitably spend a morning at Village Green. Street dudes, retired folks, mothers, students - they all come with their shopping bags full of bottles and cans. Mr. Clapp, who is black, works at a recording studio about a mile to the north, in the Chelsea area. He organized the office recycling effort and totes the empty containers himself on a folding luggage cart.
`I find it's stupid, man,'' Mr. Clapp says, a bit put out that someone should have to ask why he does it. ``It's kind of ludicrous that people don't recycle something.''
Village Green is not quite as bucolic as the name suggests. It occupies a corner of an asphalt playground on the raucous Sixth Avenue strip in Greenwich Village. The block is a human bazaar, with the sidewalk vendors, weekend throngs, and an adjoining basketball court in almost constant use.
Just a few years ago, Village Green was floundering. It is a volunteer organization, with a small city grant to help pay a coordinator. The city had stopped transporting the scrap, and the public didn't show much concern.
Then came the orphan trash barge of several years ago, followed by the medical wastes washing up on beaches, and the sheer accumulation of refuse on the city streets. New Yorkers are tossing out over 50 percent more garbage - a total of 6.2 pounds per person a day - than they were just 10 years ago, according to the Department of Sanitation, and many residents slog through it on their way to work each day.
The recent Earth Day 20th anniversary focused these concerns.
``Four years ago we just sat on a bench,'' says Christina Datz, who manages the center. ``Now we hardly have time to sit.''
The city's curbside recycling program has provided a nudge as well. The Sanitation Department has 177 new recycling cops, who inspect trash barrels and dumpsters for newspapers and other items that are supposed to be recycled. Next month they will start to levy fines of from $50 to $500.
One elderly woman at Village Green says an inspector issued a warning to her building. ``I've been trying to spread the word around the co-op: `Don't do it,''' she declares. ``We don't want to spend our $50 dollars that way.''
But the people who come to Village Green generally didn't need that kind of push. The world around them provides incentive enough.
``I've always been the kind of person who thought, `Oh my gosh, we're throwing away so much,''' says Maria Rozos, a Village Green regular. ``I feel frightened at the prospect of being swallowed up by garbage.'' Ms. Rozos solves the space problem by keeping two trash bags outside the door of her small apartment.
``If the super were really strict she wouldn't let me,'' Rozos says. ``But she knows I do recycling.''
One happy side effect of recycling is a sense of community in the massive city. City officials say recycling catches on quickest in low-rise building neighborhoods. ``The difficulties come in tenement areas and high-rises,'' Mr. Turso says.
A visit to Village Green suggests the power of one-to-one human contact. It's hard to watch people sort out their detergent bottles without feeling like a slouch for not participating.
Another side effect of hauling one's own trash is a desire to cause less of it. This isn't always easy in a society so hooked on waste that grocers automatically put a bag of potato chips into another bag. Volunteer Stephanie Colcord's efforts to reuse a plastic carry-out container at a local salad bar call to mind scenes from early Woody Allen movies.
``They gave me such a hard time,'' Ms. Colcord recalls. ``I said, `I don't want a container. I don't need a container.' They got the manager and gave me such a hard time.'' But she prevailed, and now she keeps a carry-out container in her bag, so she's prepared for a stop at the deli.
Another who has tried to curb her contribution to the trash heaps is Rena Jackson, who lives across town on the Lower East Side.
``It really makes you think how you can use less of this junk,'' she says of her weekly trips to Village Green.
Ms. Jackson got interested in recycling as a child, during the first Earth Day. But she let it lapse because of a ``lack of availability,'' she says. Then she went to work as a graphic artist designing product packaging.
``It was a good experience. I learned how stupid it is,'' she says. ``The only thing we can do is totally get away from the whole concept. But then, there goes the economy if we don't buy packaged goods.''
Perhaps the economy could become more economical. Jackson now buys bar soap instead of detergent for washing dishes and for shampoos, uses aloe vera instead of mousse in her hair, and eats fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid packaging. Convenience does not rate high on her scale of priorities.
``Personally, I just stuff the stuff in the bottom of the closet,'' she says, speaking of juice containers and the other unavoidable waste that she saves to recycle. ``It has more to do with your conviction to doing it than with the space it takes,'' she says.
``If you look to the future, this is the future,'' says Clyde Romero, an artist from Trinidad who is working as a volunteer. ``We have no other option.''