Eva Murray: Using it twice (at the very least)

(a story about cardboard boxes and other junk)
Wed, 01/25/2017 - 10:30pm

 “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Did you ever hear that little lecture growing up? That dog-eared expression seems to be lumped into the category of “charming mementos of days gone by,” along with one-room schools, homemade pie, and appliance repairmen. I think everybody knows where I stand regarding those things. “Oh, sure; my Grammy used to say that,” we hear, as though the advice were only useful Back in the Old Days—you know, Puritans, the Great Depression, all that. Too bad; the little motto is sound practice and generally good sense.

Last week, five neighbors loaded and then a couple of us unloaded the U-Haul truck carrying roughly 3,500 pounds of Matinicus Island’s recycling, trash, returnables, and Goodwill stuff to the mainland. We talked about trash here two months ago, so you may know how it works from this island: lots of hand over hand, very little machinery. The two of us who did the unloading worked our way around the receiving facility, dumping each type of material into its proper recycling bin, building, container or pile, paper with paper, metal with metal, etc. The fellow who was helping me empty the truck got to talking about some outfit he’d read about somewhere which has this rig which compresses mixed plastic containers into building blocks similar in shape to cinderblocks. “You can build a wall with these things. You just stucco over the plastic bricks, and you have a long-lasting building product.” There are actually lots of versions of this plastic brick idea, all over the Internet, all over the world.

Sounds like a good idea. Why is such technology not ubiquitous? Sure, it’s imperfect, but at the very least, considering that we’re stuck dealing with the plastic anyway, we could start with building retaining walls and storage areas at transfer stations and industrial sites out of the stuff. There has got to be a way to put such robust materials to use a second time, when for whatever reason it doesn’t get truly recycled.

But making bricks out of mixed plastic trash is just one tiny example of the idea.

Personally, as a solid-waste geek, I’d like to see a large reduction in the use of plastics for items which don’t need to be made of plastic, and I’d like to see a small deposit with a return-for-refund system attached to most all types of containers, and I’d like to see fewer low-value plastic products made of multiple resins when single-resin options exist (mixing types of plastic makes recycling difficult and unlikely to happen). I’d like to see something added to the sticker price of all our “cheap” single-use, disposable items to help pay for the disposal, which is not, despite the marketing, all that cheap. I’d like to see more EPS (extended product stewardship, where manufacturers are obligated to be involved with the whole life of the product including disposal, so that product design considers disposal issues, and cost can be acknowledged from the start,) and less EPS (expanded polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam, which has its place in our society but I don’t think my coffee cup is that place).

Perhaps the simplest place to start is the old saw about “use it twice.” Remember “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?” That mnemonic has expanded, by the way, to include “Rethink” (so make thoughtful decisions about what you buy) and Repair. Reuse shouldn’t be that hard. A lot of us just weren’t brought up even considering “reuse” –either verb or noun.

I’m not talking about making your empty baked bean can into a highly-attractive desktop pencil holder. No harm in projects like that, but arts and crafts won’t clean up the landfills. There are all manner of interesting (and also boring but sensible) medium and large-scale technologies which look worthy of our attention. There are re-use options for many materials we commonly “throw away.” To be sure, the economies of scale and transportation often make it cheaper to toss the stuff, but at some point we’ve got to take the long view of the economics, and realize that it is not really cheaper to accumulate, truck around, ship, bury, and live with ever-expanding piles of trash. A decent dump costs money.

Just a few minutes on the Internet with this “reuse” topic can be fun (assuming one is sufficiently nerdy about trash). One company which makes countertops out of recycled glass offers a range of color options including the lovely “Cobalt Sky,” which, I noted, lists as the glass source, Skyy Vodka and 1664 beer bottles, condiment jars, demolition architectural glass, and aquariums.” 

Anyway, closer to home, let’s talk about cardboard. Matinicus trucks off a significant quantity of cardboard, which won’t surprise anybody who thinks about it because most everything—and I do mean most everything-- arrives here in a box.

With no grocery store on the island, many of us order supplies from the Rockland Shaw’s Supermarket by Fax. This convenience-- which let me say right here we are grateful they offer! -- means our orders are packed into banana boxes for delivery, usually by airplane. A considerable amount of this island’s recycling leaves this little rock in the same boxes. After these sturdy cartons have been used to ship bananas to the United States, and then to ship grocery orders to Matinicus, they are used a third time to box up junk mail, catalogs, newspapers, school and office paper scrap, cereal boxes, pickle jars, broken window panes, rum bottles, small metal junk, retired rope (“pot warp,”) Goodwill items, unwanted books, asphalt shingle scraps after the gale blows and somebody’s roof takes a beating…all headed for various appropriate destinations on the mainland. We specifically pack all glass recycling in boxes because of the often rough two-hour ferry ride. Stuff gets tossed around in the back of that truck, so we avoid using plastic trash bags for glass, in mind to prevent ripped bags and broken bottles.

Once in a while, were are even able to send a nice load of the boxes back to Shaw’s to be grocery cartons again! (Not, by the way, after they’ve been used for trash. Don’t worry.) In any event, loading the U-Haul is far easier when much of the contents is packed in boxes with handles, of equal size and a manageable weight. I tell people that they are part of our “workplace safety program” as well; a banana box full of old National Geographics is all you can reasonably ask a volunteer working for free to lift up high onto the deck of a truck. At any rate, the Matinicus recycling program would be lost without banana boxes.

As we unloaded the truck last week, a couple of people came by to scavenge boxes from us, which made me feel good. They have already been used at least three times, but were still intact and many of them were still basically clean, so a fourth use is even better.

The cardboard we unloaded this time went straight into the baler, except for some saved out by a couple of guys who were moving and needed boxes, but sometimes, when the baler is busy with other material, I leave the facility with a cardboard pile that is a mountain indeed. I thought about how, as a kid, all these boxes would have been ours by rights. We lived on a street where, when anybody got a new appliance, the box became the property of the local children. First it would be a clubhouse, colored all over with markers, and then, as it wore out, lesser shelters and vehicles, until it was nothing but an old piece of cardboard, making it a perfect sled for the sidewalk hill (wicked dangerous, maybe. We’d get a running start in our sneakers, lose control, jump for the cardboard and ride it downhill, and try not to rupture a spleen. Great fun.)

Somebody sent me an entertaining link to “Box Wars,” where corrugated cardboard became tanks, trucks, weapons, even a biplane in a cardboard box battle. Check it out! The pirate and the warriors in Viking and Samurai and Arthurian-style armor led me to think ourlittle Fourth of July Parade may never be the same. 

See? Talking about using it twice doesn’t have to be a morality lecture.

Here on this little island, local artists and craftspeople help with the creative reuse and “upcycling” of what might otherwise have been trash. Examples include Blair Clement’s metal art, which I wrote about in the Pen Bay Pilot in September of 2015, and which graces the Matinicus Island church as well as many homes, and Robin Tarkleson’s rope mats, which are not unlike similar rope mats available around Maine except that her selected rope has actually been used to catch lobsters, while also being offered in the good colors. This small-scale reuse doesn’t change the worldwide solid waste glut but it definitely sets a happy example, and allows us to feel, here on this island, like a few folks are chipping away at the problem. Nothing wrong with that.




 More Industrial Arts


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Time to take down the (island) Christmas tree (posted March 3, 2016)
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Eva Murray: Pencil to paper (posted Jan. 21, 2016)
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Wild Island Child (posted April 8, 2015)

Last holdouts of offshore outpost finally accept reality (posted April 1, 2015)
Truck on boat (posted March 16, 2015)
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A constant struggle (posted Feb. 14, 2015)
Pie Hero, Pie Villain (posted Jan. 29, 2015)
Safely out to sea (posted Jan. 27, 2015)
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• Making merry on Matinicus, with only a few (posted Dec. 25, 2014)
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• What is it like to be one of Maine's Search and Rescue volunteers? (posted Feb. 9, 2014)
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• Santa Claus and the yard sales - why I own more monkey wrenches than you do (posted Jan. 15, 2014)
• Quiet on this last day of the year
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• A one-room school Christmas (posted Dec. 21, 2013)

• Here's wishing us all a little rebellion in this happy season (posted Dec. 12, 2013)
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• Light the candles (posted Dec. 13, 2012)
• Firewood (posted Dec. 2, 2012)
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