The rise of re-use

trash pile

Consumer society's millions of tons of trash could be our next big resource. Photo: twicepix/Flickr.

Last week I read that the glitzy world of virtual reality created instant multi-millionaires and several billionaires when Facebook went public selling shares.

Last week I also noted the important real world problem of some 250 million tons of solid waste a year in our country alone.

Guess which “world” gets the most investment, status, fame, klieg lights, and attention of the skilled classes and the power structure?

Guess which world is more important for our wellbeing and that of the planet?

You’ve heard of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s 900 users exchanging gossip and other personal pleasantries or worries through a medium that inflates narcissism.

The three Rs

You’ve probably not heard of Ben Rose of the New York City Materials Exchange Development Program (NYC MEDP) or the equivalent organizations in your communities providing services to thousands of charitable non-profit groups which promote the donating and reusing of materials to avoid incineration, landfilling and recycling.

To grasp the enormity of modern society’s waste products, Ann Leonard created a sparkling website, visited by millions of people (www.storyofstuff.org). She also published a recent popular book titled The Story of Stuff that details every aspect of your environment and physical being. Air, water, food, soil and even your genes absorb the byproducts of processing mountains of stuff. The results are not pretty.

While recycling efforts in cities like San Francisco, Vancouver and Los Angeles rise above 50 percent, New York City has been slipping behind its own 2002 level and is still struggling to reach 20 percent. New York City has been a leader in improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it still has dreaded incinerators producing toxic air and toxic residues.

In the early 90s, pragmatic environmental scientist, Professor Barry Commoner demonstrated in two operational pilot projects that the city could reach a residential recycling level of nearly 100 percent. Unfortunately, New York City missed a chance to become a world leader in recycling when its leaders, beginning with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, declined to establish a city-wide recycling program based on Professor Commoner’s model.

The New York City recycling challenge still hasn’t recovered from that devastatingly wrongheaded decision. Politicians and corporations cannot stop an even superior environmental cycle, presently driven by charitable associations, in Mr. Rose’s words, “nimbly accepting, exchanging and distributing thousands of tons of reusable material each year,” as they have done for generations, “all the while contributing to the social, economic and environmental fabric of New York City.” Over the decades, the recipients have been communities in need, such as homeless shelters and poor populations.

The NYC Materials Exchange Development Program now sees a great potential to “organize, grow and advocate for the practice of donating and reusing materials for the benefit of all New Yorkers,” creating local jobs and adding productivity without any tax dollars. They are rediscovering the past of a thrifty culture and expanding it mightily to contribute to the neighborhood and economic landscape.

Donating materials instead of trashing or recycling them enlarges the gifting culture and the beneficial human interactions that follow. As Ben Rose notes: “In contrast to recycling, where used materials are broken down into their raw elements to make new items, reuse takes useful products and exchanges them without reprocessing, thus saving time, money, energy and valuable resources.”

Battling manufactured obsolescence

The obstacles are obvious. First a throwaway economy of waste is profitable for sellers who want you to keep throwing away and buying. They plan product obsolescence and lure consumers with the convenience of disposable products. So we have to change habits: become more cunning about what manufacturers and vendors are up to and expand second hand, reuse and material exchange programs.

What are reusable materials? Just about everything you purchase that doesn’t spoil or perish. Clothing, furniture, books, bicycles, containers, computers, tools, surplus construction materials and things you buy or grow that you do not use. Reuse outlets include Goodwill or Thrift stores, charitable book and clothing drives, ecology centers and creative arts programs.

Nothing less than a “New Age” for a burgeoning sub-economy of reusable products and materials is being envisioned by the collaborative likes of the New York City Sanitation Department and the City College of New York’s Department of Civil Engineering. Collecting data which shows how much energy is saved, how many jobs can be created, how much better pricing systems can be, and how much solid waste can be prevented will elevate this subject and its social status within the “zero waste” movement. We should aspire to using resources, in the worlds of Paul Hawken, “10 to 100 times more productively.”

Other countries are advancing in the reuse sector in ways we can learn from immediately. Holland is starting numerous “Repair Cafes,” that are attracting increasing interest in “fixing” rather than dumping. These used to be called “Fix-It Shops” in the U.S. before the advent of our throw-away corporate culture.

For more information visit (www.nycmedp.org).

– Ralph Nader, Transition Voice

Re-posted from the Nader Page.

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