Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Waste Products are Wasted Products

    (This is part 1 of a 4-part series on how we can—and should—do what conventional wisdom tells us is impossible. Each of us can—and should—enjoy a higher standard of living while drastically reducing the negative impact we have on the environment. In achieving these seemingly contradictory goals, we can achieve two other seemingly contradictory objectives: We can spend fewer dollars on greater benefits and enjoy better health.)
     I walked into the classroom, holding a trash bag. Without warning, I emptied it onto the floor and asked the class, “What’s this?”
     “Trash,” several of them replied.
     “What’s another word for trash?”
     “Garbage.”
     “No, garbage is food that has been thrown away. Another word for trash is waste. That’s because it’s useful, but somebody has thrown it away.” I picked up a broken paper clip and asked, “What’s this?”
     “A paper clip.”
     “Not anymore. With this piece broken from it, it can never again be used as a paper clip. A philosophy called stoicism teaches us to see things as they are and not just for the purpose people give them. Basically, what is this?”
     “Metal.”
     “It’s metal in the form of a wire. Is a wire useful?” We then discussed how a length of wire of that form could be used.
     (Only a few months after conducting this class, I found a paper clip of that size on the street. Since the spring on my son’s bicycle seat was broken, I immediately saw the value of the wire. With the paper clip and a pair of needle-nose pliers, I fixed the seat, and it’s still firmly in place a few weeks later.)
     I picked up the items one at a time, and we discussed how each one could be used. I then assigned them to rummage through their trash can at home, bring something to class and tell how they used it. Some of them did so, and they taught me things that hadn't occurred to me.
     I can't claim any originality in the idea I'm presenting in this article.  When I was growing up, I enjoyed reading a regular column called Hints from Heloise.  When I was in junior high school, my Citizenship teacher, George Reeves, taught us that we should not limit uses for things to their originally designed purpose.  From 1964-67, I had the example of the Professor (my favorite character) in the television series Gilligan's Island, in which the professor ingeniously made necessary items from whatever was at hand, but he couldn't fix a three-foot hole in a boat.  For two decades or so, I was a regular reader of the magazine Mother Earth News, which now describes itself as "the original guide to living wisely."  From 1985-92, I thrilled to watch MacGyver each week, in which the title character solved complex problems with everyday items such as chocolate bars, gum wrappers, duck tape (now often called duct tape), and—yespaper clips.  Now that I'm a Boy Scout leader, I try to give my charges new insights into the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared."
     As I look around my apartment, I see all manner of things that would have otherwise headed for an incinerator or a landfill. If they had, their destruction would have further degraded our environment, wasted useful products, and created a demand for further cradle-to-grave pollutants.
     I've been using the same beverage coasters for almost twenty years. I had found them stacked outside a bar that was being gutted and replaced by a furniture store. The coasters, which had been designed to be used once and thrown away, enjoyed a longer life than the bar.
     Atop one of my book case stands the rack on which I display dozens of shells from my seashell collection. The book case had been discarded after a typhoon. The seashell display stand was once a cosmetics display stand in a women’s store. Most of my hundreds of seashells came free of charge from beaches all over Southeast Asia.
     Empty bread bags make excellent sandwich bags, although (Ahem!) some people prefer sandwich wrap. When the next bread bag becomes available, the old bread bag makes a pretty fair receptacle for recyclable plastics.
      I have several uses for zip lock bags that had once held items from the grocery store.  When I  pedal along the biking trail, I bring one along to protect my camera in case of rains.  Otherwise, it holds a few sheets of toilet paper.  On other occasions, a smaller zip lock bag holds tea bags.
     When I go somewhere overnight, an old 35 mm film canister that hasn't held film in several years is a suitable container for a teaspoon of coffee and dehydrated milk.  A 1.5-ounce, screw-top bottle is a serviceable container for the honey I use to sweeten my coffee.
     The oranges that members of my family eat during the growing season supply us with enough orange peels to make Charleston spice tea for a year. Grape seeds are chewable and are richer in anti-oxidants and other nutrients than the rest of the grape.
I could go on and on, but it might embarrass and anger someone who cares what vain people think. Besides, I’m sure you’re getting the message.
     Two forms of reuse worth mentioning are downcycling and upcycling.
     You probably already practice some form of downcycling. Downcycling is using a product for a lower purpose after its original purpose has expired. For example, you've probably cut sheets of used paper into quarters, stapled them and used them as memo pads.
     Upcycling refers to turning an item to a higher purpose than it originally had had. I’ll give two examples. Sawdust, which has no value, can be turned into particle board. To give another example, a lawyer who has passed away can be composted into natural fertilizer, thereby turning a harmful substance into something beneficial.
     Remember: Don’t buy something new if you can get something just as good second hand or, better yet, for free. Don’t recycle when you can upcycle, downcycle, or reuse. Finally, if you’re a lawyer, you can practice reuse by retelling the above joke, substituting the word blogger.
(In part 1 of this series, "How to Raise Living Standards by Lowering the GDP," I describe how the GDP is an unreliable measure of prosperity.  In part 2 of this series, “The Emperor’s New Logo,” I describe the folly of buying things that don’t exist except in the minds of gullible, emotionally stunted buyers. Part 4 is the tour de force of this series. By learning how advertisers narrow our decisions to Hobson’s choices, we can break the matrix. Part 4 is titled, “How to Raise Our Living Standards, Spend Less Money, Enjoy Better Health, and Improve Environmental Protection All at the Same Time.”)

1 comment:

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