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Reuse Is My Favorite “R”

Inge Frankel Portrait © Airyka Rockefeller

Grandma Inge’s tip
put used coffee grounds in car
you’ll be happier

I come by my love of reuse thanks to my Grandma Inge, an artist and world traveler who foraged for materials wherever she went, reused almost everything, and threw very little out. Like so many people who have known war or want, as well as all who’ve grown up in countries with an intact culture of reuse, my Grandma Inge saw very little as garbage; almost anything she touched was evaluated and turned into a durable resource.

Young Inge Frankel © Airyka Rockefeller

I suspect my grandmother’s upcycling habits were ingrained survival instincts cemented into her being when she and her family fled their home in Danzig, Poland during World War II. This constant foraging and reuse kept her alive during instability, and when she was settled safely during peacetime, these same habits kept her daily life spicy with a variety of creative projects and unexpected windfalls.

Every day, with every other step she took, be it for a mile along a trail or 5 feet from a car to a front door, she checked the ground for things, all kinds of things, anything she could use in a sculpture, painting, or collage. My sister and I watched the ground for her and offered our found objects to her – I can’t remember her ever turning anything down, and I’ll never forget how delighted she was the day I found a crushed wrist watch for her, how happy she was with each tiny gear she salvaged from its carcass.

Inge Frankel's Sketch of Her Home by the Bay

Inge Frankel’s Sketch of Her Home by the Bay

She also checked each and every pay phone and vending machine for forgotten change, and made a surprising amount of money this way. Along with the pennies she found on the ground, she had enough pocket change to keep her in as much of her beloved chocolate as she desired.

She turned odd bits of yarn into free-form crocheted beings, strange and wonderful creatures that could combine an elephant’s trunk with a bear’s body and an extra leg or fancy double tail. All of Inge’s animals were stuffed with washed-clean plastic produce bags, so they could be tossed into a washing machine or handed to a drooling baby with no ill effects.

During one summer’s family camping expedition, Grandma Inge bought me a pack of gum and turned each foil wrapper into a different wild animal, so that I had an entire circus to play with as we bumped along the coast of California in her motor home.

Grandma Inge never bought an air freshener for her car, she preferred to put her used coffee grounds into a plastic bag wedged into the dashboard, because the smell of coffee made her happy.

Inge Frankel Skiing Glamorously © Airyka Rockefeller

For those of us who have grown up in modern America, where our popular culture encourages us to judge ourselves and others on the quantity, virgin status, and brand name of our possessions, a lifestyle of reuse-by-choice can seem, well, a bit uncool.

At this point, most of us are on a first-name basis with Recycling, and we may even have the catchy “3 Rs” filed away in our memories: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Some add “Rot” on there (as in compost), and others have up to seven Rs, variously defined. I have my own favorite Rs, three of them: Reduce, Reuse, and Rethink. I may love Reuse most of all because it connects me with my grandmother. You don’t need a Grandma Inge to love Reuse, though; there are many other reasons – Here are a few:

Economic: According to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for each 10,000 tons of waste handled in a year, reuse creates from 28 jobs (wooden pallet repair) to 296 jobs (computer reuse). Landfills and incinerators create 1 job for each 10,000 tons of annual waste. Recycling also creates jobs, but reuse is even more labor-intensive, as it requires a knowledgeable workforce for the skilled sorting and astute inventory management demanded to get the most out of reused materials. Even better, many reuse jobs are in small local businesses, which further helps to grow sustainable local economies.

Environmental: Reuse trumps recycling here. Recycling, or the transformation of a product at the end of its useful life into something new, requires the input of energy, both to transport the waste en masse to manufacturing facilities and to complete the actual breaking down and re-making of the material. Some materials have a closed-loop cycle, but many require the input of additional virgin material in order to be useful as consumer goods once again. Reuse can be done by individuals at home and by small local businesses, lowering energy input and transportation carbon footprints. But don’t take my word for it, check the math in this comparison of recycling vs reuse of computers, done with the United States Electronics Environmental Benefits Calculator.

Personal: I challenge you to give reuse a try and see what happens – I’m betting you’ll find joy in the creative thinking it sparks, and pride in your work, as you turn stuff you think you’re done with into a freshly useful item you need. I don’t have stats on personal happiness from reuse, but if you’d like to give it a try in a fun way, join your local Buy Nothing Project group to give, receive, and share with your real-life neighbors in one big circle of gift economy reuse.


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