by Michael Smith (Veshengro)
New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia thinks, as does the department, that the reuse sector, both the nonprofit and the for-profit sector, are key to moving forward with regards to a New York City's “zero-waste” drive.
Compared to the heavy duty world of urban waste collection in New York, the reuse sector can seem quite esoteric. Now, the city is looking to make it a mainstream operation.
Because reusable items are generated more sporadically than the steady streams of refuse, recyclables and organics, the systems to handle them can be less organized. Due to a lack of awareness or access, it’s often easier for many residents to just put their old couches and dusty guitars out on the curb. In many places, one has to add, such systems are not – at least not on an official level – even existent.
So, let's look at what this “new” or “newish” sector of the economy, this reuse thing, actually is. Well, to have said new or even newish is rather incorrect for it is neither of it; it is quite old, only it was not called reuse or even an economy back then.
It was what the rag and bone man and others did, namely pick up things that could either be sold for scrap, refurbished, reworked or whatever, and secondhand shops, once upon a time, were very common. Now they have gone upmarket and are called charity shops. Often the same difference. And those charity shops are, obviously, the nonprofit part of the sector, although, considering that the items are donated to them, and even bought to them, they do make quite a bit of profit from the sale of them.
To bring about a more or less zero waste situation the reuse economy must also include and incorporate the repair, rework and upcycling economy, like those artisans and and other workers who will make goods, ideally usable goods and not just art, for sale, as a business, out of items of waste.
It it made to appear as if the reuse and remake economy is something new, recently invented by the green movement, but it has existed for ages. And even upcycling is not a new thing at all. It too has existed for almost ever and a day. Only it was not called upcycling. It was just what one did, and especially what those that did not have the financial resources to buy did. But it also was an economy in that people repaired, restored and upcycled for sale.
Fact is though that over the last number of decades it fell out of fashion and that was as much due to the fact that people just wanted to appear affluent pretending that they could buy new all the time as with the fact that products became, almost all, non-repairable.
The latter especially led to the demise of the repair economy and repair businesses, large and small, fell by the wayside and died a death. Yes, we still have the so-called shoe repairers, for instance, who often also operate the dry-cleaners and key cutting, but you try to get those franchisees to sew back leather upper to a leather midsole. They can't do it “because they haven't got the machine for it”, as I was told when wanting it done. They are not cobblers, the are just machine operators and if there is not a machine with which to do it they cannot do it. Anything that would involve sewing by hand, where a machine cannot be used, they cannot do. Basically all they can do it put a new heel or sole onto a shoe or boot and that is about it. And the latter obviously only if the shoe or boot has a sole that can be removed and a new one put on and with many shoes and boots today that no longer can be done today.
Before every manufacturer – or almost every one – jumped on the bandwagon of built-in obsolescence, following the likes of Osram in the mid-twentieth century and other US firms after World War II, the repair economy was everywhere because everything could be fixed, at least almost everything.
In countries such as the GDR – often referred to as (communist) East Germany – there were entire small enterprises as well as state combines dedicated to repair. The combines were like a department store where you could bring anything to be fixed, even bed sheets and such, though many things people just fixed themselves.
When the built-in obsolescence “hit the shelves”, so to speak, it was the death knell for the repair businesses, large and small, under capitalism, as almost nothing could be fixed anymore or was and still is too expensive to fix with repairs costing many times that of a new one. And we are surprised that our landfills are overflowing and that we have a waste problem.
That is not to say that people are not a problem here either as many seem to treat everything as disposable even if it is not. It begins with cutlery and other reusable things at picnics in parks where those items are, once soiled having been used for eating with, are tossed out just like disposable items. It carries on with clothes where a button has come off, even though they still have the button in their possession, and so on and so forth.
The reuse sector could really have its work cut out nowadays with people's waste alone to clean, rework and all that, and then bring it back into circulation. And if we add to that upcycling then we would really be motoring and a good thing it would be too.