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Stewardship of Stuff

Roni Burrows
On Garbage (November 2017)
Healing the World

An intense pleasure of my profession as a chemical engineer is the practice of balancing. Not the balancing of a body in movement (although I do know that pleasure – in dance and in Aikido), but the balancing of accounts of the earth itself. Everything that comes out of the earth goes back into it. Or almost everything.

We can see sparkles and flames when bits of the cosmos pass into our atmosphere. Something like a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent of the mass of the earth comes to us each year in stardust. A similar amount of hydrogen and helium likely drifts up and out again toward the cosmos.

To simply take a passive ride on this planetary cycle of stuff is not acceptable to me. I see the mountains of waste, even though they are kept mostly out of sight in landfills or dumped into the ocean. I am ashamed when I remember each piece of plastic wrap that drops from my hand into that trashcan under the sink. I know where that plastic came from: the petroleum that was pumped and shipped and purified, that was chemically reacted, that was heated and cooled and rolled into sheets and cut and shipped and shaped onto the package for the item that it shielded, that was shipped and sold and unwrapped and turned into trash in my trashcan. I know where that plastic is going: to the bin in the alley, where it will be picked up and driven to the landfill, where it will slowly, slowly turn into carbon dioxide and water and bits of crumbly, sterile dirt. It came from the earth, from the air, from the water. It will go back there, in time, though not during my term of stewardship, not during my lifetime.

I suppose I could wallow in the shame of my inadequate stewardship, in the grief of knowing that the earth might be marred by my tenure on it. Instead, I reduce and reuse and upcycle/recycle.

The biggest impact I can have is to reduce what I acquire, what I bring home, what I use up, and what I throw away. Reducing consumption includes refusing – refusing a bag or refusing extra packaging. It includes borrowing instead of buying. It includes repairing what has already been acquired.

Reusing is the next-best step. Its impact isn’t as large as reducing, but every reuse delays the need for more stuff to be made from yet more stuff taken from the earth. The stack of glass jars in my pantry (thank you, Vlasic pickles!) reveals through the clear bottoms just how much rice, beans, lentils, quinoa, almonds, brewers yeast, and flour we have.  The stack of paper bags in the bag drawer is ready for delivering food to a potluck, as well as for food shopping.  If an event or concert has restrictions on bringing my own water bottle (or if I just forget), then when I sometimes buy a “disposable” bottle, I still re-use that bottle later, again and again. So many items can be repaired rather than being disposing of: clothing, cars, chairs .

Eventually, when no more repairs can put an item back into use, when no more re-uses are left in the stuff, then we can look at recycling – both upcycling and downcycling. To recycle is to utterly change the purpose of stuff. To upcycle is to repurpose stuff for greater value. To downcycle is to repurpose stuff into raw materials.

The earth-impact of wrapping paper, for example, starts with the cutting of trees (and the manufacture of the tools that do the cutting). Next comes the pulping and processing of the wood (and the manufacture of the equipment and chemicals to do that). Then there is the dyeing and printing and cutting of the paper (and those chemicals, that equipment); then the packaging and shipping; and finally, my trip to the store.  All of those impacts are reduced or eliminated if I stop using wrapping paper. 

But I need not give up the sharing the receiver’s joy in opening a package. I can make small gift boxes from empty toilet paper rolls and scraps of old maps and bits of ribbon too short to use otherwise. The making of the gift box is itself a joy, as is the joy of reduced consumption. The joy is doubled, tripled, or more.

Upcycling has captured my imagination and my soul. I turn old maps and beautiful calendars into envelopes. (I can imagine a congressional staffer opening one of my beautiful envelopes with much more interest than a plain one.) I turn plastic bags into yarn and then crochet and weave and knot that yarn into carry bags and water-bottle slings and floor mats. (There are cadres of upcyclers all over the U.S. crocheting sleeping mats for the homeless out of plastic bags.) I add drawstrings to mesh potato and onion bags to make reusable produce bags, which means I bring fewer new plastic bags home. Other upcyclers make useful and beautiful items by upcycling potato chip bags (into bracelets and handbags), the endless weekly ad mailers (into planters), and the endless plastic bottles (into bird feeders and lawn sprinklers and wind chimes). All of that stuff that the earth has provided is given more time to add value to our lives before it returns to the planet it came from.

But not quite yet.

All that stuff can be downcycled. It can be broken down, dust to dust, back to its fundamental, essential nature – and re-formed into things of value and beauty and usefulness.  Paper, a beautiful gift from plants and trees, can cycle again and again until it is ultimately downcycled into compost and soil. Glass is nearly endlessly recyclable as it is melted and reformed. Plastic can be sorted and melted and re-molded and made into new bottles, new toys, park benches.

And then stuff finally goes back to the earth that provided it – quickly, if it can rot into compost; slowly, if it came from petroleum; eons if it came from rocks and ore.

Stewardship can be a spiritual practice, and perhaps it should be. I came to Friends through Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which has a Faith and Practice with a Statement on the Testimony of Stewardship:

We recognize that the well-being of the earth is a fundamental spiritual concern. From the beginning, it was through the wonders of nature that people saw God. How we treat the earth and its creatures is a basic part of our relationship with God. Our planet as a whole, not just the small parts of it in our immediate custody, requires our responsible attention.

Quakers are not alone in this recognition. There are admonishments throughout the Bible, the Quran, and the sacred writings of Hindu, Bahá’í, and other traditions: Live simply. Share what you have. Be a faithful steward of what is given to you.  ~~~

Roni Burrows teaches chemical engineering at Arizona State University. She gives workshops on Upcycling through several Quaker organizations and attends Tempe Meeting (IMYM).

recycling repurposing Environmentalism

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