The Long Game

When things have out-lived their present use, I consider re-use as the first option. I’ve come to routinely resist the garbage pail or even the recycling sorting area. Can I use it for something else or can someone else do so? If I can see it in a new light, then case closed – I use it. Or maybe I save it with the probability that I can use it later. How long can I reasonably keep using this thing or material or part?

If there is a chance someone else might want it (and there is always that chance), then there are a lot of options. There are classified ads, social media, buy and sell websites, word-of-mouth, thrift and consignment shops, and garage sales. Almost everything finds another user somewhere. Having been on both ends of those transactions, I feel there is ample proof that one person’s garbage is another’s treasure – even with damaged, spoiled, wrecked and icky things. Different people have different needs and applications. I’ve learned to resist deciding or assuming that something is useless.

As long as this ethic is in play, I’m not too hung-up on how long I keep or use things. It varies all the time. Some items last a long time; some appear to have a greater degree of re-use probability; sometimes uses are short-lived. Everything varies and I’m ok with the variance of ‘in-use’ time. The point is to perpetuate the cycle as long as possible before items end up in a true garbage channel.

I’ve learned to resist deciding or assuming that something is useless.

Of those familiar 3R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle – it seems like the first two have the greatest impact with the least cost. Some people may point out that reduction does have a cost for industries that produce. I’d say that the ingenuity of humans who figure out how to make products could be redirected to design systems where not so many products are needed. It’s pretty clear that on the whole, we’re over-producing.

Recycling is a good philosophy that tries to get a handle on packaging materials but it is extremely energy intensive. It’s a part of our current puzzle, but it is an ill-fitting piece.

Two blogs back, I described contamination in the recycling chain and the need to be in some way conscientious about mixed materials. Part of the reason is to keep materials as pure as possible so they can be sold to recyclers and have the best value in a remanufacturing process. But there’s another reason.

I’ve found the value in re-using.

Recycling is not my first step; it’s almost the last resort.

Our role in all that sorting is very important, but we just don’t have control over what happens down the line. When markets change or shipments are rejected, a lot of uncertainty can develop pretty quickly. Are recyclables that meet this fate rerouted? Are they stockpiled somewhere? Do they find alternate buyers? Or do they end up somewhere initially unintended like a landfill or in an incinerator? It’s difficult to say and this, I think, is the hardcore reality of physical waste. We dispose of a lot of it and it’s a bit naïve to count on some system to handle it thoroughly with the best of environmental ethics when economic realities are in the mix.

I’ve found the value in re-using. Recycling is not my first step; it’s almost the last resort, right before landfill-destined garbage.

“What could I use this for?” doesn’t always work for every item, but it is surprising just how many ideas have come forward when I ask that question.

On the occasions when items or materials reach their end-of-value for me, there is the free store at the TS. Most of us experience the TS for the 10-20 minutes that we go to drop off materials. But if one were to stay longer, or monitor it over the course of a weekend, it might be surprising how much material is dropped there. A fair amount of it is exchanged as people haul away great re-use ‘bargains,’ but the sheer volume means that TS staff have to step in and sort or process items before that ‘right’ person arrives to claim it for reuse. It’s a constant pace at the end of each day to keep up with the drop-offs.

When I observed that, I suddenly saw the effect of one individual’s (or a weekend of individuals’) consumption/disposal habits. It emphasized the imperative of reducing but also of all the other avenues to find another user or use. The TS offers a great service, but it still functions with limitations of space, time, personnel, and workflow. It’s less of a service that takes away my problems and more of one that highlights their scope.

~ Ross Burnet ~