Turning Trash Into Treasure: How Diverting Waste is the Ultimate Act of Sustainability

Note: My inspiration for posting this is attributable to the many radically creative and excellent ideas in Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community by H.C. Flores.

The clock is ticking. On Wednesday, I am to shoot a segment for the Sust Enable film project in which I construct a draft box (alternative to a refrigerator), solar cooker (alternative to a stove/oven), and hot water solar shower, in order to illustrate how easy and cheap it is to build such items for the average person. Once applied, these technologies can divert significant amounts of energy that would normally come from the plugs in your home, to free energy provided by the sun and wind. (Of course, the issue of winter and weather conditions arises, but I believe that every little applied creative technology helps in the approach toward sustainable living.)

But there is one obstacle looming… can I overcome it in the hours before the shoot begins?

How do I sustainably acquire the necessary materials?

If I am claiming to live a 100% sustainable lifestyle, then certainly I cannot acquire anything new–all supplies must be redeemed from the waste stream of others. Or must they? I began to realize that the likelihood of me garbage-picking a 55-gallon drum, spigots, fixtures, tools, aluminum foil and black hose was rather slim in the time frame given, and with the transportation resources I have (i.e., a bike).

Hence, I must consider the tradeoff of my actions as thoroughly as I can. What are the consequences of the manufacturing of a metal spigot, bought new from Home Depot? What’s the tradeoff if I were to continue to use conventional hot water heaters for all of my showers for the next few years of my life? …Ah. Maybe I can be a little less strict with myself!

Nevertheless, there are shockingly abundant resources for ANY home sustainability project you wish to undertake. All you have to do is learn to look in the right places first! And, these resources are completely free. People seem shocked to hear that my cost of living is under $100 a month. But when you are trying to live sustainably, operating without superfluous commodities becomes a given (also discussed in Food Not Lawns, under “Quit Your Job”)! But that’s another post…

There is nothing more sustainable than trying to get the most use out of the embodied energy of any material. That means: if you’ve got an old cupboard you don’t have a place for anymore, don’t smash it and use it as firewood! Countless gallons of water and petroleum went into turning that wood into a cupboard, so brainstorm other ways to use it in its high-energy state, or give to someone who can use it. In Cradle to Cradle, the authors talk about how recycling materials often results in “downcycling”–where the subsequent use of the material results in low-grade, un-recyclable products. Since this is the current state of design, recycling is nowhere near “sustainable.” On the other hand, reusing materials and not thinking of them as “waste” leads to a more ecologically-responsible lifestyle.

Last night, an old garden hose was coiled up on a neighbor’s garbage pile, awaiting the morning’s collection truck. Instead, it found a new home and a new use with me (see it in the Solar Shower segment). Anything you dream, you can create… and using found & available materials makes it all the more specific, original, and creative!

Here are some tips for where you can find just about anything you need.

  • “Garbage picking” in affluent neighborhoods. This is by far the most successful means of acquiring excellent materials. Simply driving or biking around the streets on trash night (easily determined on the Internet), I have spotted a solid wooden draft table, soundproof foam, gardening supplies, a mint-condition armchair… even a child’s scooter! The neighborhoods don’t have to be affluent either, but I think you’ll find that the rate of good materials is higher on a house-to-house basis in such neighborhoods. Shame on them for being so wasteful… but good for you and your projects.
  • Freecycle or the “Free” section on Craigslist. Dozens of furniture items, building materials, and miscellaneous household stuff are being given away right now in your neighborhhood on these online forums! For FREE! When was the last time you could get loads of lumber for free? Also, check out the barter and other sections for good deals.
  • Dumpsters. Ever driven around to the back of a grocery store or a strip mall? Well, it’s time to start. I have found clothes, picture frames, CD racks, notebooks, food (of course), and even a printer… all sorts of usable, high-quality materials that for some reason had gone “out of date” with the store supplying them. Hours earlier you could have purchased that printer… now, it’s yours for the taking.
  • Tag sales. Sometimes people just don’t know what goodies they are tossing out.
  • Free box. Some community projects, especially cooperatives, may offer a free box. Common items incude clothing, slightly damaged tools, and miscellaneous small items.
  • Wholesalers. Occasionally you will find large, unusual items from food distributors, retailers, supply stores, etc. This includes 55-gallon drums. And don’t forget…
  • The Junkyard! Want to build a wind turbine for home use? It’s a pretty simple procedure… and it requires a car alternator. Get one for a couple bucks at a junk yard! Your mind will run wild with schemes for using some of the awesome, bizarre objects they offer.

Lastly, if you have a deadline (like I do), and must pay for your reclaimed materials, then do so at a reuse warehouse like that of Construction Junction in Pittsburgh, PA. Construction Junction “promotes conservation through the reuse of building materials.” They collect an assortment of materials from home remodeling, building demolitions, etc., thus diverting valuable resources from the landfill. The store looks not unlike Home Depot, but all of the contents had a life before they arrived, and will have a life again in your project.

The vast, serious issue of environmental degradation requires creativity, gumption, and flexibility. In my opinion, the best way to exercise all three of these is to get a-garbage pickin’! When you come home with a car full of veggies (from a broken-down cooler at a grocery chain), a whole patio set and some paint cans (from a neighbor’s curbside), then we can talk about getting creative! In my experience with dumpster diving for food, you can never count on exactly what kinds of food will be thrown out. You can, however, swear by its abundance.

(Re)Cycle Waste. Close the Loop. Reap the Rewards!

Read more about

Zero Waste, Dumpster Diving

top photo credit: Romary on WikiCommons under the GNU Free Documentation license

  1. GardenGrrrl

    I love freecycle. Looking for stuff others are throwing out isn’t just about looking in wealthy neighborhoods. If you live in a college town you may find that students at the end of the term throw out a ton of perfectly good stuff.

  2. Caroline Savery

    Great point! College move-out week is a celebrated event in my city when it comes to reaping their absurd amounts of trash. Friends of mine have found IPODS in that trash. I didn’t quite have enough space to mention it in the post, but I’m glad you brought it up. It’s a great resource.

  3. Nathan

    Don’t forget the ReStore! It’s run by Habitat for Humanity, and is basically a thrift store for building supplies. Contractors that are gutting houses bring over all kinds of materials, and they can be had for dirt cheap (they’re happy to get rid of things to reclaim the space). My sister almost entirely re-modeled a home she purchased via a tax auction that way. Saved thousands, and had good feelings to go with it. You’d be amazed how much you can haul on a trailer pulled by a 50 mpg diesel Jetta!

  4. Nate

    Don’t forget the ReStore! It’s run by Habitat for Humanity, and it’s basically a thrift store for building supplies. When contractors are gutting a house they’ll bring usable materials there. Everything’s dirt cheap, and they’re happy to get rid of it to reclaim the space!

    My sister re-modeled her entire house that way that she got at a tax auction. She saved thousands. You’d be amazed at how much you can haul in a trailer pulled by a 50 mpg diesel Jetta!

  5. janelle

    i love construction junction! it’s only 6 blocks from my house! indeed, pittsburgh is becoming quite a green community–because i don’t have time or creative ability, i shop for recycled home decor and green gifts at Fresh Heirlooms, also located in Pittsburgh. there’s now an online shop that has creative and nicely done candle holders, furniture, clocks, shelves, picture frames and a bunch of really neat stuff. http://www.freshheirlooms.com

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