What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "recycling"?
For me, it's separating cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, cans and glass and periodically hauling them away to the city collection area.
Today, I was reminded that the concept of recycling is much broader than that. My wife and I just hosted a yard sale. A lot of stuff was cluttering our home, and we wanted to downsize before our upcoming move. We were tempted to just throw much of it away. Otherwise, the plan was to just box it up and begrudgingly drag it to the next house—basically postponing having to make a decision about it.
At the last minute, we threw an impromptu yard sale—we spread out items on the front lawn, nailed a cardboard sign to the telephone pole in front of our house and spent the day helping neighbors haul stuff away. We met new people and exchanged some stories along the way.
It's win-win situation: We get rid of stuff that is sitting around not being used and even make a little cash from it. Our neighbors acquire stuff for very little money. The earth gets a break from us humans constantly producing new things. Old items that are not even produced anymore get re-circulated. It might even help foster the bonds of community.
Advertisers have invested a lot into convincing us that the solution to any of our problems is that every individual person can own a "new one of everything." However, that severely limits our imagination. It also puts an unsustainable strain the earth's resources. [If everybody on earth consumed as much as the average U.S. citizen, we would need four earth-sized planets!]
Our yard sale has caused me to reflect on all the ways that we can acquire and share resources that do not involve every individual person going to a retail establishment to purchase something new. I compiled a list below. Several of these do not involve the exchange of money at all. Some of these are probably second-nature to many folks and you do them all the time. However, are there any you have not considered? How long can you get the items you need without having to buy something new? Are there other methods I'm missing?
Keep in mind, most of these methods involve us having to work cooperatively with our neighbors (which is usually the last thing most Americans want to do)!
1. Share. I come from a family of Midwestern farmers. My grandparents did not own all the farming equipment they needed. A group of several neighbors and friends owned everything and shared with each other. One family owned a plow, another a hay-baler, another a combine, etc. Each item was only needed a few times during the year. With enough coordination during peak planting and harvest seasons, they were able to simply rotate items between them.
My family no longer farms, but I own a weed eater, mower and other lawn care equipment. I use these items for a few hours every week or two in the summer. My neighbors do the same with theirs. Yet, each of us owns his or her own. We've been led to believe that it's better to spend a few hundred (or a few thousand!) dollars on our own equipment rather than talk to our neighbors and come up with an arrangement to share.
2. Time share/joint ownership. This is an extension of the point above. Sharing doesn't have to involve money at all, but it can. Perhaps 4-5 neighbors could chip in the money to buy and maintain a lawnmower that they all use. What other items could be jointly owned?
3. Swap. Do you covet something your neighbor has? Maybe he covets something of yours. Get together and simply swap items. No money has to change hands. It will feel awkward and wrong. Do it anyway! What if one person gets a better deal than the other? So what!
A few years ago, I was part of a group that hosted a swap meet. Individuals arrived with a box load of stuff they no longer wanted and left it there. They were free to take a box load of whatever their neighbors brought. Some took more than others, but all were satisfied and there were 12 bushel baskets left over to donate (yes, that is a Biblical reference, but it was also quite literally true in this case!) People recycled items which others acquired, and not a single dollar exchanged hands. It was like a free garage sale.
4. Public Facilities. I'm always amazed when walking around the neighborhood to see swimming pools in many of the yards. I rarely see any them used. They take up a lot of space and require significant work and expense to maintain. Yet the thought of a public swimming pool repulses many of us. I think would be so nice if there were a public swimming pool down the street that we can all use. Parks, pools, libraries, gymnasiums, sports fields, recreation rooms and entertainment centers work nicely in public settings. If you have your own, who are you going to share it with?
5. Libraries for books... and more! Some neighborhoods have a lending tool library. Instead of buying an expensive tool you may only use once for a home improvement project, you can simply check out that tool and return when you are done with it—no different than a library book. You will have access to more items this way than if you had to purchase them all yourself.
Traditional libraries carry not just books, but periodicals, movies, music and more. They host programs for young kids. They have computers with internet to use, as well.
6. Rent. Why buy when you can simply rent? There are many items that are only used occasionally. Trucks, rototillers and carpet cleaners are great options here and readily available for rent.
7. Garage & yard sales, flea markets, second-hand stores and free stores. These are great ways to get quality items, many of which are not even available to purchase new, anymore. You pay a small fraction of the cost as buying retail for often similar quality. Donate/shop at organizations that give away goods to the less-fortunate
Going back to the yard sale example, it's a shame when something is simply thrown away that could have much more life to give. Our retail consumer-driven economy has conditioned us to forget all the other ways that the economy functions outside of retail purchases. Given global environmental problems up to and including climate change, we are going to have to re-think how we acquire and dispose of what we consume.
Pete Seeger has some further suggestions to add to the list:
“If it can’t be . . .
reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted,
then it should be . . .
restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”
Everything needs to be part of a cycle of life, decay and rebirth. If we have created items that only have a single use and have not devised a way to either re-use them or return them back to the ecosystems from which they came, then we should not be producing or consuming these items.