Bin There, Bought That

Recycling only goes so far. We've forgotten about the Reduce and Reuse part of the equation.

By Jenny Dunlop
Published November 05, 2010

So here's something I've noticed lately: we in the western world are in the midst of a de-cluttering/reorganizing frenzy.

Pick up any lifestyle magazine and "Simplify your stuff" or "Get rid of clutter" screams at you from the cover. Everyone, it seems, is interested in achieving clean, orderly and artfully minimal surroundings - and we seem to require professional help to reach this goal.

An entire industry has spawned from our collective need to get rid of things and reorganize the things that are left: TV shows, books, and professional "organizing" companies have sprung out of our societal need to purge.

But here is the irony: instead of simply getting rid of stuff - or better still, not acquiring it in the first place - North Americans now seem to be spending vast amounts of money buying more stuff to put the stuff we already have in!

Go into any big box store and you'll be confronted with row upon row of colour-co-ordinated multi-size boxes, baskets and bins. There are closet organizers, hangers, hooks, rubber tubs with see-through walls, stackable shelves on wheels, wire racks with pegs attached, and buckets with lids.

For those who wish a more formal look, you can buy hinged suitcase-looking things, appliqued with faux-antique maps, or lovely floral designs.

So here's the thing: if we are supposedly getting rid of all our unwanted, unnecessary and unused possessions, what are we putting inside all of these fabulous containers? More than likely, the answer is stuff that we don't need, don't want to look at, and will probably never use again!

Stuff to Hold Stuff

What I find even more disturbing than the compulsion to buy containers to house the stuff we have is the proliferation of hygiene products that are being presented to us every time we walk in a store or turn on the T.V. No wonder we need six-tier wire racks for our bathrooms!

In my house in the 1960s, there was one bar of soap and one bottle of Steinberg's Egg Shampoo beside the bathtub.

No moisturing bodywash (of course, no-one had invented it yet), no hair conditioner/cream rinse, hair volumizer, straightener, de-frizzing serum, or colour-enhancing, deep-conditioning treatment. My mom did have a small jar of Dippity-do, for the two evenings a week that she set her hair in rollers.

Our "storage units" were a couple of cardboard boxes that held Christmas decorations and camping equipment.

How did we get from Dippity-do and cardboard boxes to the gluttony of plastic bottles and organizational necessities that presently crowd our bathrooms and houses?

Our pioneer ancestors made do with a bar of home-made lye soap and a wooden storage chest, and while I'm not suggesting we should return to those extremes, perhaps there's a lesson in there somewhere?


Where will all this manufacturing of completely unnecessary junk end? Where do all these things we use - and discard - go? As a clever person once said, there is no such place as "away".

Somebody, somewhere will have to deal with all the plastic bottles and everyday stuff that we are accumulating/organizing/putting into matching boxes ... or throwing "away".

Recycling only goes so far. We've forgotten about the Reduce and Reuse part of the equation.

I think most people would agree that there is a lot of junk out there, and that too much finds its way into our homes. Now that stores seem to be open, well, all the time, shopping for more things to put in our houses and products to keep us clean and clothed has become a national past-time.

And if all the stuff we have now will one day count as "antiques", what will the antique stores of the future look like? A scary thought.

Jenny Dunlop is an Oakville housewife and mother to three teenagers. Her favourite past job involved dressing up in a pioneer costume and teaching children how people used to live in the early nineteenth century.


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By Andrea (registered) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 19:51:42

Intersing. Here is a link to an article about how wasteful Canadians are:

Today I was in a co-workers office and notice the vast amount of plastic water her waste basket. The more disturbing fact is that we have filtered water at work, so there is no need to bring in or buy those pesky little plastic containers. Additionally, 80% of the people in my office with do not recycle or use their green bins at their home. (It's a small random sample, but scary nonetheless).

Earlier this year I read a study (but unfortunatley cannot find a link) that summarized Canadians as great at the recycling part, but not so great at purchasing items made from recycled goods.

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By Refusenik (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 22:32:15

The 3Rs are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle but the original slogan was REFUSE, Reuse and Recycle.

People were encouraged to REFUSE over-packaging by either not buying over-packaged merchandise or alternatively leaving that excessive packaging at the retailer. The idea was that the message would eventually get back to the producer who would respond by using only the amount of packaging required to protect and mark the product.

In the early eighties, when the blue box programs were rolled out in earnest, the message was toned down to the more consumption friendly REDUCE, Reuse and Recycle.

The original not only rolls of the tongue more easily but if one were to practice the first element, Refuse, then they were less likely to even need to practice the second or third.

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted November 06, 2010 at 08:57:30

The urge to constantly buy material items is now part of our culture. It takes a huge effort to combat the urge. If we could practice more of the "refuse" approach, we'd have more money for the important things in life. Most of us complain about our governments wasting money, but what about ourselves?

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By Refusenik (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2010 at 09:17:28

In the pre-Adbusters era Pollution Probe (before they became a corporate shill, more recently) also developed mock advertisements for silly consumer items such as the revolutionary Electric Spoon.

Supposedly a good compliment to the electric carving knife, the electric spoon was a new consumer item that illustrated why we should just Refuse outright much of what is pitched to us, never mind the packaging.

Today the availability of things like Dishwasher Cleaner(!) drives the point home but it is a real product rather than a satirical one. How long before we are offered soap cleanser, lol?

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 07, 2010 at 00:39:23

And if all the stuff we have now will one day count as "antiques", what will the antique stores of the future look like? A scary thought.

Even the way we design houses, condos, and other living spaces these days, in the interests of them being as widely appealing as possible, necessitate more things being purchased in the pursuit of aesthetically pleasing surroundings.

I'm finding that since moving to Hamilton and living in a place with much nicer architectural details (huge moldings, hardwood floors, windows that are a great focal point) that I'm much less tempted to buy things to fill the space, since its bones are much more beautiful than the last few spaces I've lived in.

Comment edited by Meredith on 2010-11-06 23:40:25

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 07, 2010 at 10:24:54

Re-use, re-purpose, re-think, re-imagine.

Nothing blows me away quite like the vast gap between the price/quality of parts and raw materials I can find new, as opposed to the abundant, free, high-quality "garbage" carted away daily. A single old main roof joist from a (carefully) demolished barn averages about a thousand dollars worth of "reclaimed lumber". I was once told that much of the restortion work at Tailgate Charlies (69 John St. S.) was paid for the same way.

Started writing a zine/pamphlet on this years back. I've since had to shelve it because it became a book (sitting at around 100 pages now), and is threatening to become an encyclopaedia. Ever tried to sit down and figure out what to do with old dirt? Wood? Foam? There are hundreds, if not thousands of options - all of which explode in our faces as soon as we start thinking. There are so many options beyond burning, burying or carting away.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 07, 2010 at 21:00:59

In a way, the focus on the "recycle" portion of the slogan has actually made the "reduce" and "reuse" parts less effective, because recycling serves as kind of a balm to the conscience. It's easy to feel better about consumption when you recycle, because it's easy to think that the waste you throw into the recycling bins will serve some good at some point, but this is hardly guaranteed: lots of stuff that you think you can recycle is not actually recyclable, and there are warehouses full of plastic that no one can find a use for.

Mass production of packaging in particular has made society a little bit weird. Today I needed to transfer three small pieces of chicken from my fridge to my father-in-law's fridge, to serve as my son's dinner (he doesn't tend to eat what's on the menu at papa's). I used a small, resealable sandwich bag as the container. I was using it for a 15-minute drive, after which point it would be thrown away.

But I saw it for a moment through the eye's of someone a few hundred years ago: a resealable, waterproof, durable, transparent and flexible container, really, a sort of miracle. A miracle that today I use for 15 minutes and throw away. In retrospect I should have used a reusable container but the thought didn't even cross my mind.

On the other hand, it's just a tiny little bag. Does it really matter?

I recently read a story about Japan's struggling economy. The problem, explained the article, was that Japanese people have stopped spending money. They prefer to save and as a result their entire economy is grinding to a halt. Similar concern is expressed about North Americans' "consumer confidence". We've created a situation where not purchasing stuff that we don't need has dire economic consequences.

Bizarrely, we even want people to buy stuff they don't have any money for: we lower interest rates in an attempt to make people more likely to take loans in order to purchase more stuff, and credit card companies fall over themselves extending credit. Does that ever end, or is the plant to just spend ourselves into a sci-fi future where cheap energy and resources are limitless?

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By Zero (anonymous) | Posted November 08, 2010 at 02:33:16

Hope this comment gets through. Great observation, Jenny. And the Rubbermaid keeps coming. I wonder where it all goes. Why does the City restrict us to one bag of garbage, yet when it comes to development, they keep promoting retail?

Okay, Jenny, take a deep breath: I have no TV. Therefore, I do not have all the accessory entertainment devices that go with one. I have no air conditioner (and I live on the top floor of a 4-floor walkup where AC is not provided centrally). I have no microwave. It broke and I did not replace it. I have no toaster. I had the use of a car, because I worked out of it, but no longer have one. I don't have a bicycle or a vehicle of any kind. I walked from downtown Hamilton to The Meadowlands, and I will admit it was to buy a copy of the Lemon Aid Used Car Guide. I have no stereo. I do not have an MP3 player. I have no such devices. I sing when I am alone, and am getting better at it. I can play music on my computer. I have a telephone and an answering machine. I have regular service only, and no special services. I have no cell phone. I did have an old one someone gave me, because I used it for working. Like the car, it is no more.

My computer is 11 years old, and I can't really update anything. My ISP has just told me that dial-up internet will no longer be provided to me. I have a decision to make. It is a tough one. You and RTH may be the last parties with whom I communicate this way. (If I manage to do so with success.)

I find that the older I get, the coarser I want my hair shirt to be, rather than less so. Yet I do not feel deprived. In the original Kung Fu TV series, what did Quai Chang Caine carry in that bag, anyway --that is, other than the flute? I hope to find out some day. Golden years? I hope to transact my senescence with coin of a baser metal.

I am not a Luddite or Amish. I think the refrigerator is one of the greatest things humankind has ever devised. From working outdoors in the winter, I have learned that the first luxury is to get out of the wind. The second is to have a heat source. The less I have, the more I appreciate these basics.

I am not without vices. I just find a lot of "stuff" encumbrances. Yet somehow I do find those containers attractive. I have less and less to put into them, but they have some appeal of their own for some reason.

I tell most people I meet that everyone in our culture should read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. If anyone has been interested enough to get this far in my commentary, then they should read it, too.

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By zippo (registered) | Posted November 08, 2010 at 14:29:34

Zero wrote: "what did Quai Chang Caine carry in that bag, anyway --that is, other than the flute?"

"Kung Fu"; Great TV series! All I can remember seeing him take from it in various episodes were: His rice bowl, some food, a small pouch containing some herbal medicines, and his Monks robes, which he wore in a few episodes when he had fights with assassin monks that the Emperor had sent to America to try and kill him

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 08, 2010 at 20:19:21

lots of stuff that you think you can recycle is not actually recyclable, and there are warehouses full of plastic that no one can find a use for.

I had a friend who ended up in management at a plant like that. As he put it, plastics, industrially, are really heavily regulated - until you slap "recycling" into the name - then everything is legal. That's how you get operations like Plastimet - it's just speculating on enormous volumes of plastics. Horrifying stuff.

As for Caine, a Buddhist monk's traditional belongings were largely limited to robes and a bowl for eating and begging. Now, I can't specifically remember if he was a Buddhist (Shaolin is Buddhist, Wu-Tang is Taoist, etc), but either way, he wouldn't likely have much more. And either way, it's pretty cool. Not only did a surprising amount of that stuff actually happen (monks fighting the government, pirates, etc), but even today, the Wu-Tang temple accepts students from around the world and plants hundreds of thousands of trees.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2010 at 00:12:54

I find that the older I get, the coarser I want my hair shirt to be, rather than less so

Zero, above.

Ditto. I wonder, though, if it's austerity for its own sake, or if it is rather that experience has taught us that we really don't need as much as we used to think we did. Kind of like when I was 24 years old and we had our firstborn, I felt it necessary to own a diaper bag and stock it with tons of stuff. As the years went on and the family grew, I saw that all I really needed was a small bag with one change of clothes, a couple of diapers and some wipes in a baggie to throw into my purse.

I’m getting old but I’m not old yet, I’m already worried that I might forget, How to laugh, how to love, How to live, how to learn, I want to die with a smile when it comes my turn

-- David Myles

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-11-08 23:25:36

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted November 09, 2010 at 13:39:14

And if all the stuff we have now will one day count as "antiques", what will the antique stores of the future look like? A scary thought.

There won't be any and if there are you'll need a hazmat suit to go in one because of the toxic fumes released when polymers degrade.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2010 at 16:53:47

As nasty as degrading plastics might be, my biggest fear is all the urethane-based building materials. Whether it's Ikea furniture (made of urea-bound particleboard), spray-foam building insulation, couch cushions etc. Many of these off-gas formaldehyde and other toxic by-products as they age, and while more modern products now have found alternatives, there's still a few decades worth of this stuff around.

Asbestos must've seemed like a really good idea at the time, too.

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By AnneMariePavlov (registered) | Posted November 10, 2010 at 11:04:34

I just read "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage" by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, and I will never be the same:

It is a bit out of date (early 90's) but it contains some fascinating analyses of landfill sites and strata of garbage going back decades. I was amazed to hear their finding that 40% of landfills are filled with building materials like drywall and lumber, and newspaper. Only about 12% total consists of plastic and diapers. And another thing I didn't realize that the book explained very well was how biodegradable things don't biodegrade in a landfill, because of the lack of oxygen needed for that process. They report finding fresh grass clippings from the 50's and nearly intact newspapers from every year. Their findings about nail polish bottles were quite startling too - seems like a small thing to toss an old bottle of nail polish, but multiplied by millions, they (and batteries) comprise a significant amount of hazardous waste in any landfill. Required reading. I could not put it down!

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