When in Doubt, Don't Throw It Out

There's better ways than recycling.

When in Doubt, Don't Throw It Out
Photo by Patti Black on Unsplash

Paper Salvage was implemented by the UK in 1939 to encourage the recycling and reuse of paper and other goods to be used toward the war effort. One bureaucrat noticed there was still a considerable amount of paper being thrown in the trash and decided to make signs.

If I remember correctly, it was Air Marshall Downing who calculated that making all those signs would use more paper and energy than it would save, assuming people even listened to them, and halted the project.

Most plastic is not recyclable, and as I was washing a particularly stubborn small sauce container, I wondered if the energy used to heat the water washing it, the water itself, and the cost of recycling it (assuming it was even recyclable), was worth it.

New York City has one of the most robust recycling systems in the nation, but after checking their list, I found this little piece of plastic is not recyclable.

The same is true of most paper, and while cardboard is recyclable, it isn't if it has oil on it like a pizza box. Attempting to recycle a dirty pizza box can ruin an entire batch of paper, and there is a limit to how many times paper can be recycled. Each time it is, the fibers that hold it together get shorter, and eventually, you can't produce cohesive paper.

Toilet paper is about as far as you can go, and paper towels and toilet paper are not recyclable.

Neither are styrofoam, bubble wrap, clothes hangers, plastic wrap, incandescent light bulbs, plastic wrap, disposable food containers, windows and mirrors, wood, kitchenware, plastic toys, garden tools, ceramics, pottery and other waste I see in recycling bins all the time.

The most recycled items are newspapers and beverage cans and bottles, but recycling appears to be more of a feel good policy than anything else, and one of the arguments for it is that it creates more jobs, most of which are hazardous.

You need people and machines to sort out all of the non-recyclable items and others to oversee the toxic processes required to do the recycling,

95% of EV batteries, most of which can and should be recycled, end up in the dump or stored indefinitely. Recycling them is expensive and complicated, and the lithium that powered them is reduced to slag which is difficult to extract, and more relevantly, can't be reused in a battery. Once lithium is tapped out, that's it.

About 99% of lead batteries, such as combustion engine car batteries, are recycled, but for the alkaline batteries we use in flashlights and remote controls, the general policy is to just throw them in garbage.

The way in which we recycle glass today compared to 1950s milkmen is much more expensive and wasteful. Instead of just cleaning and reusing the bottles, they're sorted by color and type, smashed into pieces, and melted in a furnace to be re-blown.

Most of the energy to do all of this comes from burning fossil fuel.

Recycling does keep some waste out of landfills, particularly when it comes to steel, even though the process is expensive, it's cheaper and less environmentally damaging than mining for new materials.

One option is to learn what's actually recyclable instead of just dumping everything you assume to be into the bin, as this would reduce the cost and danger of recycling.

The best option is to stop buying and wasting so many products.

Almost all of my furniture came from the curb because people are constantly throwing away items that work perfectly fine just because they feel the need to have the latest or newest versions, more and more of which are deliberately built to fail or become obsolete quickly so we have to keep buying forever.

Sofa beds from the 1950s are incredibly heavy and definitely cost more to build, but they're practically indestructible, and I see stuff like this on the curb all the time.

The Rhode Island School of Design is notorious as a place to go pick up free furniture, TVs, and other items that are abandoned by the wealthier students once they graduate, or even when they just go home at the end of the year.

A bigger problem, especially for the poor, is the lack of the right to repair. I've heard arguments that US citizens are no longer capable of building and repairing complex electronics, but if a Chinese kid can build your phone, an adult in the US could at least change the battery, assuming they didn't destroy the phone in the process.

Taking these damn phones apart is more difficult than fixing them.

The last time someone asked me to look at their car, while I could figure out what was wrong, I was afraid to touch it. I didn't see any way to reach that part of the car without either possibly destroying something else and/or taking the entire thing apart to reach it.

One program that has worked here is certifying car thieves to become mechanics while they're incarcerated. A lot of these thieves are juveniles, and their auto shop teachers were amazed the first time they saw them take apart a car. They said they'd never seen anyone do so as quickly and thoroughly, or who was as good at identifying problems or starting a car without a traditional or electronic key.

More importantly, they knew which parts could be swapped out from cars that were beyond repair, and they used everything that could help them, including the wiring.

Or in other words, they knew how to live more sustainably. They didn't have to buy expensive new parts. All they needed was an hour or so at a salvage yard.

The average driver isn't going to be nearly as adept as a convicted car thief, but there are other ways we can do better.

Bike or jog to the gym instead of driving, especially if it's within five miles. Take the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Read more books instead of watching TV, and if your phone or computer breaks, go to YouTube and look up how to fix it. A lot of these fixes are easy. Again, the hardest part is getting inside--especially into Apple products--without wrecking them, but it can be done with a bit of patience and ingenuity.

I've seen wooden doors thrown out because whoever was trying to install them drilled a hole slightly too large for the screws in the hinges to grab. This can be fixed by cramming wooden toothpicks into the holes, which effectively makes them smaller and gives the screws something to bite into, and you can do the same if you drill a hole too big in a door frame or just about anything made out of wood. It's an old carpenter's trick, and it works.

The key is to waste as little as possible.

If a zipper head breaks, you can loop a key ring into what remains. You can also learn how to sew. Even if you're terrible at it, if you find thread about the same color and turn the pants or shirt inside out to sew it, virtually no one will notice, and like the toothpicks and key rings, you should tell them anyway.

With the doors, almost no one bothers to buy one once they know the toothpick trick. They start taking doors from the curb if they need them, and there are so many, it's easy to find one the size you need.

I fixed an otherwise fine winter coat with a key ring when its zipper head broke. Most people would have just thrown it out, and after asking me how old the coat was, many told me I should just throw it out anyway and buy a new one, or "treat" myself.

Some clothes are beyond repair, depending on your perspective. I've fixed shorts with difficult tears by turning them inside out and using duct tape. If it's an expensive parka, shell out for the same colored duct tape and just patch it with that, or use an iron on patch.

If you're hellbent on buying something new, at least clean and repair your old clothing and donate it to charity. There are some people who notice--primarily the most materialistic people and employers--but in New York City, you can get last year's $500 suit for free if you call social services. They know you need a decent suit for most job interviews, even if the job is shit, and you can continue to do this even after you're gainfully employed because they also understand the sick need to keep up, and some of the rich are at least decent enough to donate pricey suits and shoes when it's time for them to get a new wardrobe.

I understand that the small minority of people who do these things aren't going to make a dent, but maybe if more people knew how, more people would start, and this would buy us a little more time.

We've already passed the two-degree Celsius threshold, or the point of no return, but people have accomplished wonders when there's a strong incentive and consensus.

So yeah, we're probably screwed.

The odds say it's inevitable, but for every day we can add, we give ourselves more of a chance. As fucked up as this world is, I don't want to lose it irretrievably, and for as stupid and intractable as many people are, I don't want us to go extinct, even though collectively we probably deserve it.

There's only so much a few people can do, but I've already seen some positive changes, or more people who are willing to at least consider the solutions we need.

When the soon to be Commissioner Gordon said to Batman there's only one of you, Batman replied "Now there are two."

We need millions of people to have changed 40 years ago, but we have to start somewhere, so I say why not now?

The modern world as we know it is at stake and we need systemic changes at all levels, but we also need a place to begin, and regardless of the odds, this is the pivotal moment when we, or the US government, still has the power to effect meaningful positive change.

Maybe it's more logical to just lie down and die or party, but I feel a responsibility to younger generations who had nothing to do with this. They deserve a shot at a future, and they need our help.

You have to ask yourself what kind of person you want to be, and look at this as an opportunity to do something important and decent.

The data says we're screwed.

I'd rather go down fighting, or at least sewing.

How about you?

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