• Abi Newhouse Vaughn

Our Fixation on "Away" and Fixing It Instead

While I was editing our third episode, “We Found ‘Away’ on a Mountain of Trash,” I was in Utah visiting family. My niece and nephew both walked into the house and saw me with my headphones on, and beelined over to me to see what I was doing. I let them try on the headphones and listen to some rough audio. It was funny to watch their eyes widen, to hear them repeat words they heard through the headphones.

“Peanut butter?” My 4-year-old niece said. “Rug? Clothes? Cardboard?” We were all laughing at her exaggerated expressions. When I took the headphones away she asked me, “What did you mean about ripping your clothes into strips?”

I explained to her that my friend, Caroline Bond of The Cozy Experience, rips up old clothes, then ties all the strips into knots, over and over, until the fabric evolves into cute rugs.

Well, apparently, later, on the way to school, my niece had told my sister all about how you can transform clothes into rugs. She was excited by it! In true kid fashion, she had hinted to her mom that this is something they should do going forward.

I kind of laughed about it at the time, but now I wonder if this is something humans are somewhat naturally interested in. We appreciate that ingenuity, especially if it’s reuse in a creative way.

Sandra Goldmark, author of Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, comments on the shift in our society to a lack of repair. We don’t have as many shoe or jewelry or appliance repair shops anymore–instead, it’s all about tossing the old and buying the new. And the consumer industry does this on purpose, creating cheap options basically guaranteed to crap out in a year or so, forcing us to throw out the broken ones and buy the new “updated” version that will also break in a few years.

This doesn’t make sense to us, naturally. Our earth works in a closed loop process–objects are grown, used, and then decomposed, where their organic material helps that process start all over. Humans opened that loop by creating their own chemicals, making plastic out of oil, making objects out of plastic, and then acting surprised when there isn’t a natural way for an unnatural product to break down.

As I’ve looked around at my own home–at the plastic water bowl for my cat, the plastic bag of rice, the plastic razor in the shower, the plastic planter pots–it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed. I’ve started to take a second to look at the object I’m about to throw away. Even before I consciously did this, I felt some sort of disconnect inside of me: something in my mind asking me to take a second and reconsider. Why isn’t this fixable? Or reusable? Or upcyclable? Or, in what ways could it be any of those things?

I don’t have a good way to get rid of these things when they reach the end of their use. Or when I decide I want something new. Or when I just simply hate how they look. I stress myself out about continuing to use something I don’t love but feel obligated to keep since it won’t do better anywhere else. But that anxiety isn’t helpful; it’s always worth acknowledging that I’m a person living in a society that makes it difficult to be ethically and environmentally conscious at all times.

To quell this anxiety, Goldmark recommends this method of thinking: Have good stuff (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.

To break it down a little, I’ll start with the plastic planter pot. First of all, to have good stuff, I can buy a ceramic pot instead (for other objects, wood or some types of metal are better biodegradable options than plastic). Second of all, I can buy a ceramic pot from Goodwill instead of new from the hardware store. And then, when I’m done with it or want a different style or whatever the reason may be, I can give it to someone who wants it.

I’ve realized that throwing something away can be a last possible resort. Even with plastic–the plastic planter pots can be donated back to garden centers, if they’ll accept them. They can be given to neighbors through a Buy Nothing group. I can save them for nurturing seeds at a later date. Although humanity’s waste situation is a dire one, it doesn’t have to weigh so heavily on us–at a certain point, it can become second nature to find alternate solutions to throwing things “away”.

Before I get off my soap box, I have one last hill to die on. Mixed metaphors? They can be unhelpful–just like mixing organic and inorganic materials in the landfill. Stay with me here.

Let’s talk about a typical week in a typical American’s household. We toss wrappers, banana peels, apple cores, tags from clothing, ticket stubs, takeout containers, plastic silverware, and more into our trash cans. Even though the bag isn’t full, it starts smelling really bad, really fast. We hold our breath when we open the bin, release our breath when the lid is shut or the door is closed. It’s bad.

It’s actually bad because of the mix of organic and inorganic materials. Engineered landfills don’t allow for oxygen, meaning organic materials–the banana peel and the apple core–don’t have the necessary components to break down naturally. So, they start smelling, leaking, and producing gnarly amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that adds to our climate disaster.

Organics should instead be composted. Google “[my city] composting” and I can basically guarantee there will be a place to take your compost. Or, you can get a backyard composter and make soil for yourself. For me, I keep my food scraps in a bag in the freezer to avoid any natural rotting smells, and then take the bag every week or so to my community garden’s composting bin. My farmer’s market also accepts compost. There are myriad ways to deal with our waste differently. And as soon as we get in the habit, the change is not a difficult one.

Goldmark wrote:

“Hodder explicitly warns about the human tendency to try to “fix” things with yet more technology and more things, which only expands the entanglement: “We cannot keep doing what we have always done–find short-term technological solutions that lock us into long-term pathways.” Instead, he recommends that we try to begin to see the “thingness of things,” that is to say, to see our relationship with things in a new light.”

To change our way of life is to be like my niece: wide-eyed and wondering at an “old” and natural system of reuse, fixing, upcycling, care, and passing on. These ways of using things responsibly are just as natural to humans as owning things in the first place.

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