In a letter to a friend recently, I was reminiscing about my years working in a salvage and recycling yard. It was founded by an idealistic and action-oriented sociologist right near the edge of the local dump’s garbage pit, now grown to a fairly large operation that employs about forty people. I loved and miss the work: it was dirty, physically demanding, creative, and full of the thrill of treasure hunting, as founder Dan Knapp, my fellow salvagers, and I made all manner of discarded things available for use again. We diverted truckloads upon truckloads of things from the landfill every day, and dug among boxes and bags of trash and pulled out everything recyclable or reusable we could find. We rescued all manner of interesting artifacts; one box of ephemera we sold made it into an episode of PBS’s History Detectives. Being a lover of history, I was thrilled at the discovery and wondered how many other interesting and significant relics we snatched from the dump’s gaping mouth.
I wore steel toed boots and thick battered work gloves and grimy jeans, and scrubbed the filth off old household goods, lifted stoves and tables and dressers and machinery and rugs and other heavy things (I grew very strong there, and learned how to maximize the available leverage in my body), and delicately repaired jewelry, pottery, art, and so on. One of my favorite photos anyone’s ever taken of me illustrates an East Bay Express article from several years ago, where you will find me sitting on one of a row of recycled toilets. We helped young artists and first-time homeowners and collectors and independent businesspeople and seekers of antiquities find interesting and useful things; we also bargained, negotiated, and wrangled with hustlers, hoarders, slumlords, and thieves. While the work was hard and pretty nasty sometimes, it could also be great fun and deeply satisfying, and the comradery we shared was delightful, sometimes intense. Many lasting friendships emerged from this place, including my marriage.
Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express
My reminiscing was triggered by a podcast discussion I’d just heard about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointed idealism when so many of his fellow Americans flouted the Embargo Acts of his administration. Jefferson wanted to avoid getting drawn in to the war between Britain and France happening at the time, and to protest the unfair treatment of the newly formed United States as a free and equal trading partner. He also wanted to demonstrate to the world ‘that there are peaceful alternatives to war’, such as withdrawing from trade in protest. Unfortunately, the public would not put up with the resulting deprivation of luxuries and money-making opportunities resulting from the general embargo, and it failed.
The embargo episode discussion reminded me of the idealism of the salvage yard, of its founder and those of us that believed that the work (and some still do!) was mostly about doing our bit to counteract the wasteful and polluting consumer habits of our American culture. We hoped and believed, like Jefferson, that the capacity of ordinary citizens to do the right thing would come through, and we could curb and redirect our acquisitory habits if necessary. Yet, like Jefferson, many of us found ourselves disappointed at the way our fellow citizens would fail to live up to our idealism. Even in the Bay Area, known for its ‘green’ culture, our community still manages to consume so voraciously and produce so much trash, that our operation could hardly seem to make a dent in it, though we recycled, literally, tons of stuff every day. When our team in place at the dump would salvage from the trash pile about to be bulldozed into the pit, we’d find enormous quantities of recyclable and salvageable things thrown carelessly into the garbage, even though there’s a comprehensive local infrastructure for salvage and recycling. Everywhere in this country, even here in this liberal bubble, we still seem to be contributing far too much towards rendering the earth and its atmosphere more inhospitable to life as we know it, because we just can’t seem to find a way to help ourselves.
Now, of course, there’s no way around the fact that waste is one of the byproducts of living, especially for long-lived, intelligent, creative creatures like human beings. And some of the waste seems acceptable: clothes worn out and outgrown; machines which no longer work but contain usable parts; recyclable packaging like glass bottles and tin cans; worn-out books, textiles, and parts; obsolete technology; and so on. But lots of the waste appears just gratuitous: gimmicky toys and games; faddy decor; cheap, poorly constructed clothing and other stuff manufactured for short-term use; trinkets and impulse buy gifts that few like to keep but many buy out of a sense of social obligation or an addiction to shopping; and so on. To this day, when I walk into a department or gift shop I perceive mostly thinly disguised, soon-to-be trash.
We really did believe, as again so many of us still do, that this salvage work has significance, that it’s a part of a general movement, slow-moving as it may be, towards a greener, less wasteful, more environmentally caring way of living in the world. The mission and the work both fit in with and raise local consciousness, and lots of people bring their discards to salvage from, glad to see that much of it would not become trash after all. And the business continues to be a well-known and beloved local institution, warts and all.
I still hope, with my old friends and former colleagues, that the people of the United States and of the world will make more than symbolic changes to better protect our world from the ravages of our mining, agriculture, production, and consumption, and live up to our idealism a little better than the American people of Jefferson’s day. Those disposable grocery bags do little to help if we’re still buying and throwing away at such high rates, cheap clothing, discarded water bottles when clean water is flowing from our taps, boxes from nightly takeout, overly-packaged goods, most kinds of plastics, and generally more stuff than we need. Many are more optimistic than I am about how far we’ve come and where we’re going when it comes to waste, pollution, and the capabilities and effectiveness of modern recycling programs. My husband points out that the efficiency of the Oakland transfer station, which uses well-calibrated equipment to effectively separate out recyclables from trash, and the advanced capabilities of carpet recyclers, who have taken out the guesswork of sorting by compatible fiber content with sensors which can detect it, demonstrate real social progress at least when it comes to waste. And one of my great friends is a techie who closely follows technology news, those just coming out, in development, and still in the working-theory stage. If he’s right, new technologies will resolve most or all of our pollution problems, of both production and disposal, in the relatively near future, so long as we manage to fund, make, and use them before we’ve pushed our human-nurturing environment over the brink of collapse.
I really hope my husband and my tech friend are right. Perhaps we won’t ultimately solve the problem through economic self-control, just as in the days of the embargo. Perhaps technology is the only workable solution. But until we’ve invented our way out of the mess we’re making of the world, we need to keep putting our junkyard idealism to work.
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Sources and inspiration:
Jenkinson, Clay. ‘Crockett Middle School‘, episode 1169 of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Feb 21, 2016.
‘Urban Ore: About Us’ business website page
Related Ordinary Philosophy pieces:
‘Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too! Dec 13, 2014 by Amy Cools
‘Logos‘, Jul 27, 2015 by Amy Cools