August 17, 2009

Stuff: Reduce? Reuse! Recycle.

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image003We just spent a week cleaning out our garage. Since we’ve lived in this house for over 25 years and have raised three kids here, there were a surprising number of things that we forgot we had and that had now attained the status of junk. We were sorting and throwing things into piles: for trash, for recycling, for donating.

During this process, a truck drove up, marked with the logo of metal recyclers and filled with old appliances, metal rods and poles. The driver asked if we had any metal they can have. We were happy to give them the old hubcaps, poles, curtain rods, and other metal items we had identified for recycling.

This reminded me of the controversial Herbert Gans article on "The Uses of Poverty" in which he lists the positive functions that poverty plays in society, including how the poor buy items that wealthier people don’t want thus extending their economic value with second-hand and third-hand markets.

clip_image006The article concludes by suggesting alternatives. However, none of the alternatives Gans mentions relate to how goods bought new by one group then sold over and over to other groups who may not have afforded them at their original prices. His only mention is that the second and third hand markets would cease to exist if poverty didn’t exist.

That article was published in 1971, a time when recycling was handled very differently than it is now.

I have lived in different social class strata over the years and have been part of the secondhand market exchanges in different ways. Our household tends to give regular donations to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army. This is a great way to recycle items we have outgrown or no longer use so that they do have an extended life. It’s also a nice little itemized tax deduction – a nice middle class perk.

clip_image009We have also made use of the storefronts of these organizations, purchasing items that others have discarded and of which we have made good use. Years ago when I was an economically struggling single parent, I used these and other discount outlets out of necessity. More recently, for example, my spouse proudly wears a jacket he found for $3. Articles in the local papers list these stores as havens for bargain hunters; interestingly, more of these lists have appeared as the economy has worsened.

Secondhand items are not just purchased by those who are in poverty, although they may be the sole source of “affordable” and accessible items for that population. Shopping at thrift stores doesn’t carry the stigma that it used to. Secondhand items are also attractive for people who shop for “fun” bargains or those who like vintage clothing these outlets often carry.

For example, here in Los Angeles, a number of thrift stores specialize in designer clothing, items worn by celebrities, or used in television shows. Those stores can mark their prices a bit higher than most but they are still selling a used product that is priced much less than the original.

clip_image012I was shocked at the excessive amount of stuff we found in our garage; we found embarrassing numbers of boxes and packing materials, multiple clay and ceramic pots for plants, screwdrivers and other tools (both broken and intact), nails and screws and other fasteners (both rusty and in their original unopened packages, old telephones and walkie-talkies, even two toaster ovens. Realizing the waste that those items represented as they sat in our garage, unused, and, in some cases, for years, the material basis of middle class life in this society is quite appalling. Some people have rented storage spaces to store their unused material goods – we had just stuck them in the garage when someone moved out or the project was over and overlooked them when making our previous donations.

The environmental impact of consumerism may have some bearing on the capitalist meltdown we are experiencing. However, revisiting the Gans article on the functions of poverty, it is clear that re-using items is not just for the poor anymore.

On the other hand, there are a number of other issues that have changed. One might argue that more of us are poor – or headed that direction – due to the dynamics in our societal economic structure. Many of us don’t recognize how close we are to being homeless – for many, that situation may be one or two paychecks away.

Recognizing the true cost of the goods we consume – including packaging, later uses, and ultimate disposition – may help solve some of our societal excesses and environmental impacts. If we thought more about how the items we want will live their lives with us and after us, we might not make the same purchases.

Our society has been changing in fascinating ways. Re-using items in those second hand markets is more acceptable for people in different class levels because of the current economic woes. The re-framing of recycling and reducing waste has been a trendy yet important strategy to reinforce our societal infrastructure. Since our society is not based on a sustainable structure, ecologically and economically speaking, the importance of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” increases as we move through time. Reducing use, re-using items, and recycling is no longer the province and positive function of the poor.

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Comments

I agree with all you've written down here! Especially with the sentence: "Many of us don’t recognize how close we are to being homeless – for many, that situation may be one or two paychecks away. " This is so true especially in the U.S. where people get toxic loans, live deep into credit and have no clue when they will get out of the debt pond. Not sure they're really aware of it that much, it's somewhere on the subconsciousness.
Great post, great writing style!

It’s always a good idea to clean out the garage once in a while so we can reduce buying unneeded things, make donation and recycle a lot of unused stuff. It benefits us (reducing buying things to save money, getting more space in the garage), others (reusing donated items) and the environment (recycling). Good article and very practical way of thinking!

I love the thrift store! Something about shopping there feels satisfying. It's inexpensive and the money generally goes to a charity organization. Although I have money to buy new clothes, I enjoy perusing the racks of 80's shoulder-pad clad dresses searching for a modern treasure. It seems that lately it has been a trend for young adults to shop in thrift stores, yet growing up I was encouraged to shop at discount stores. There's a certain "thrift store style". I like your statement, "Reducing use, re-using items, and recycling is no longer the province and positive function of the poor.", because I can relate to it in myself and others that I know. Isn't it great? It needs to surpass the "trend" stage, however.

Im so happy the people really started to recycle. everytime i check out hotel/motel/apartement i must know if there are some recycle bins. its a must

This is a great example of Social Change. Everyone in our country is not realized we cannot treat our earth the way we have been. People are recycling and reducing on the amount of items they use because we need to save the planet. These behaviors will last a long time and hopefully have a positive effect!

Good subject to discuss about it. Why not cleaning the closet, too (in addition to the garage). In my view, all of us must start reduce our un-wanted stuff in the garage, closets, cabinets via re-cycling processes, so that peaple at need to use them, especially, these days that econmic issues, lay-offs, and so on have been impacting a lot of us (and also, reduce, reuse, and recycling is good for the environment & our country).

i don;t want to imagine the price we would have to pay if we won't help our planet turn the right way. Right now we do not make enough efforts for a greener Earth, but maybe if we will raise awarness among people than we will have a chance. Great blog article !

recycling is the way forward,we need to impliment more recycling systems into our communities and reduce the total amount of refuse that is being incinerated or burried. http://upvcwindowssite.com/

perhaps there is one upside to the recession after all ... namely (as you suggest) due to finances we are all being forced to be more efficient with benefits to the environment.

Good subject to discuss about it. That article was published in 1971, a time when recycling was handled very differently than it is now.

Great advances have been made with regard to the recycling of all types of uPVC products in recent years, but more does need to be done. Thank you for the very informative post.

More recently, for example, my spouse proudly wears a jacket he found for $3. Articles in the local papers list these stores as havens for bargain hunters

Wow!! This is one of the best post i have read so far.

I think it's fair to say that money does not buy happiness. Recycling waste for other people is a thankless task, but it's put a roof over my head and to be honest with you, I have to a certain extent consumerism to thank for this. However, commercialism seems to be changing and the result is that goods that were once thought of as "junk" are now considered a necessity for longer than previously considered (ie computers, cars, furniture)

Its wonderful idea to clean the garage and wipe out some worst stuff. I would also like to do the same. Thanks for inspiring us by the great ideas...

I am a German guy studying sociology in California. After reading the article, I agree with Sally Raskoff and she writes about a very imported topic in the year 2009, today its 2015 and the topic is still not to forget. But the gap between the people who are doing recycling, planning to do and people that are against this life style is growing. But in Germany we try to help people with these events, we spend clothes and shoes that are no longer in need to the local church for free. The clothes and shoes are going to poor people that have not enough money to buy or to homeless people.
But the example of Sally Raskoff reminds me that there is a society that lives in consumption. They have, as she says, “Projects” or “events” and after it ends some stuff is no longer in use and they stuck everything in a room and forget it. This is for me a personally no-go. In cause of this I really like and agree to Sally Raskoff, because she said to think about living with the stuff you will buy. This will affect your next purchase and your way of live.
This little example shows the differences of the classes in our system. The upper classes are defined trough consumerism and wealth. At one point it is more important for a person to buy and have the item as to use it. The lower classes are taking much more care about what they are buying and how they are using it, they will not forget anything in the garage.

To think more about what you are buying and how you will live with it - is the thinking we need to save our planet – the consumerism is a virus that is familiar to every middle & upper class – this virus will destroy our society and our green planet.

It's a wonderful idea to clean the garage and wipe out some worst stuff. I would also like to do the same. Thanks for inspiring us with great ideas...
https://www.sudhakarind.com/

I don't want to imagine the price we would have to pay if we won't help our planet turn the right way. Right now we do not make enough efforts for a greener Earth, but maybe if we will raise awareness among people then we will have a chance. Great blog article!

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