Friday, 4 April 2014

A guide to the ethics of freecycling and recycling

The other day I brought a few things over to St Oswald's for them to sell or send to the rag and bone people. I now prefer to do this over the more conventional options supported by the city, such as just bin things on the day, put them in the recycling bin or bring them to the recycling centre near St-Peter's in Byker.  The practical truth is that these options are now less desirable than ethically distributing things between neighbours and donating to various charities.

Before we get to the how of Freecycling, let's look at the why.

The last two times I tried to use the recycling depot I was verbally abused by the officious little *&nts from the council running the place. Despite my heartfelt desire to bring electronic goods, rags and other things they were designed to take, I was barred from the place for having entered on the power of my own legs. Forget that I at the time lived two blocks away and didn't want to drive a car in ( or in my case  somebody else's), the facility is built on the exclusive notion that you will drive in and out, there is no pedestrian access. Because of the slavish devotion to health and safety as well as  the belief that people are too stupid to look out before walking into a place to see if there is any traffic, means that anybody using something smaller than a mini austin or with fewer than 3 wheels cannot bring any recycling into the centre. Good job City of Newcastle, for making the disposal of unwanted things more likely to end up being fly tipped. I am not the only one who feels this way  but repeated complaints have have done nothing to remedy the situation and now I depend on other means which I shall talk about in a bit.It still means that at the end of the day, there is an even greater probability that the item I would have brought there to be dealt with properly, be it electronics, old paint, cardboard or building materials, will end up in landfill and not be recycled at all.

So what about the recycling bin you say? The problem is not so much the sorting, that I don't mind, glass away from the rest, makes sense. The problem begins when you try to shoe horn things like rods or odd bits of plastic  that won't fit in. Try leaving the clearly for recycling cardboard boxes neatly folded and staked next to the bin and they ignore the stuff. You need to cut it up and tie it and put a pretty bow on it with a note telling the workers how  brilliant they are AND stuff it into the already  full bin. Left over building material not numerous enough to hire a skip lays unloved and untouched for weeks  or months  until some bright spark takes pitty on the stuff and cuts it up with saw or steals it in the night. So while the blue bin is ok for most stuff, the things most foisted on us despite our best efforts, are near impossible to get rid of.

The blue bin part 2: We don't create a lot of rubbish, in fact if it weren't for a bit of egg shell, trimmed veg and bones, we'd have no rubbish at all. We recycle as much as we can and try to buy things with as little packaging as possible. This means that our green bin is effectively a large unused space taker in front of the house.  What to do?  For starters, what if I could use it as a recycle bin as well?  Just need a council approved sign of some kind..... a signal of some kind that says it's not got any rubbish,  but today I have put a load of old papers and other things in that would not fit in the blue one. It would take a second for them to look.

The Brown bin: If you live in a place with a lawn , a garden or some other such place with vedure and root things that need regular tending, you'll know you can't mix in food waste,  you can't put in any sticks  over a certain length and you cannot put in anything that is not some kind of plant life. Fair enough about that,  but  during certain seasons you'll trim a lot more than one brown bin's worth, and it will take weeks to be rid of the stuff if  ever.  In short, If I can , and I can....we burn it. We can't be bothered to wait a month to reduce a day's garden waste. And if that wasn't bad enough, it's a limited service, miss the days and you're stuck with a bin full of grass cuttings till next season. Three guesses where all that grass ends up.  Personally, I just hide it in with the occasional regular rubbish I accumulate, but  little wonder  some people have wrong mindedly paved, astro turfed or concreted over their laws. These people who had a choice to be kind to the planet or free of one more job, chose to deny water yet a few hundred more square feet of  space to gently go into the ground. Wonder why there's so much flooding? there's one reason.

Composting: A fine idea, sometimes even supported by local councils  but mostly not. What do you need to compost? Enough waste that is clean ( uncontaminated ), clean kitchen waste, some paper, some space, a composting kit and a reason to make the stuff in the first place.  If you can't use it but your neighbour can, good.  But if you're not that lucky, who's going to take it away to be used at allotments, private gardens or local farms? Depending where you live, the service is spotty to none. Which brings me to us....We cook from scratch, buy fresh, mostly free of  packaging and only in the amounts we need in the case of food that will go off quickly. Food prep waste, mostly fruit, veg and egg shells, means we should compost, but we produce too little even with all the home cooking. We are forced to find novel ways to get rid of the stuff, and so we start here with the freecycling and the ethics of it all.  Faced with the dilemma of binning v making the world's smallest compost bin, we have been forced in the absence of a nearby compost bin to just bin the stuff in the closest  green bin owned by people who never heard of recycling, and believe me.... there are still way too many of them. It saddens us that until we finally turn over the yard and turn it into a our own small free hold farm  short of the chickens ( hums the good life theme), we are effectively forced to go against our own principles or end up knee deep in bits of onion and garlic skins.

Having lived a few places in my life, not least of which was a city that led the way with what we now call free cycling, I find myself turning to the old solutions, as they are still the best.

As a boy my grandmother taught me two important things.

Other peoples rubbish can and should be gold, but only if you need it or know people who need it . 


Always be clean and respectful of other people's property when reclaiming something into usefulness. 

It's amazing what perfectly good things people will bin. In my lifetime I have saved furniture, books, clothes, toys and games not to mention the abundant harvest of pumpkins, melons and other perfectly edible decorative veg that goes out the day after harvest festivals and Halloween. We lived on an unused clean 5 kg bag of lentils for two months once. Most recently we have acquired

1- a lawn mower
2- a strimmer
3- several antique non electric yard and kitchen gadgets that still work fine
4- enough spare parts to build or repair most of the appliances in the house
5- book cases, books, cd's
6- perfectly good computer peripherals including a kick ass set of mini speakers
7- Enough toddler toys to stock a day care.... which it did in the end
8- Art.... you will not believe the bounty off people with bad taste.

and FOOD.... food that thing that keeps us alive. When you move house and you bin perfectly good fresh food.... don't make it hard to get to, don't cover it in slime. Make it easy to find and take, and if you can spare the effort and time... offer it to somebody, anybody. It's food and it's a sin, a crime to waste it.

CLOTHING is another area we need to tread carefully on. Most clothes in this country end up in one of two places, the bin or increasingly, the charity shop. I used to run a charity and can tell that despite the most logical hygiene rules, people still donate underwear, aka stuff that has been near your genitals or bottom.  Do I even need to say why this is wrong????? Pants aside, most clothes, washed and in good condition deserve to be used by somebody. If we have lost weight and cannot take the clothes in ourselves or they are not worth the expense of a seamstress, we will bring the clothes to one of the many large metal boxes situated in convenient places and that are dry even in the wettest weather. Barring that, we always walk the clothes over to a charity shop near us to insure the goods are not ruined by passing dogs and other beasts that could open the bags up. That said, my wife and I have been the grateful recipients of clothes from others who thought we'd appreciate perfectly good clothes  that could fit us  but not the person offering.

Freecycling is easy and ethical if you follow a few simple principles

1- Assume somebody needs what you don't want any more:  This is true with furniture, appliances, art, books and kitchen things. My preferred way is to put things in plain sight a few days before the bin men come. What doesn't get taken by people who need it gets taken by the rag and bone men ( salvage ). If you feel uneasy about this, then call a proper charity that will place or sell on your things at a low price to those who will need it most. Avoid the charity that regularly breaks and bins most things  they get  if they cannot get  a good price off the antique dealers. Ask the questions and you'll be sure the goods ( not actual rubbish) get a new home as opposed to just taking longer to get to the landfill.  In fact the step before the charity is to ask around your neighbours or family before you put it put on the curb.  Even better, hold a garage sale, put a small price tag and shift it to somebody else's house.

2- When taking something from the tip behind the big grocery store: be careful to be clean, be careful to take only what you need and no more. In fact you can, if you think it will work, arrange to let the manager know you are taking the stuff and why.  Let them know that there are food banks and families that are going without while they bin industrial quantities of food every week.

3- When taking something from the yard of a person on or near the bin days: keep it clean, only take the stuff you can use and leave the rest for somebody else.

4- Give back: keep the cycle going, do not be ashamed of what you are doing and make sure you never break any laws.

5- If you have enough people or space to take food from the "not so perfect" back bin in large amounts, cook it, share it , freeze it , and share some more.

6- If you garden, swap with others, give away excess seeds so others can garden as well. Process your fruit and veg into something that will last and cook with it or bake with it.

7- Books: If you're not the type to hold onto books for long, find people willing to take them off you or sell them to used books shops. 

8- You are online: then use the swapping sites, be fair, be honest and never undervalue things  just because some idiot is giving things away for 25p.  Things have value, just try buying them new cheap or trying to find somebody willing to build it for you for free..... these things have value and so do the skills to make them.

9- lastly, in all of this, never loose sight of the fact that your act of generosity and consideration will be a reason to socialize more and be aware of your impact on the people around you. You are also reducing the amount of materials used to replace the binned things if you had to buy them new yourself. Consider that the next time you feel the need for a new phone a mere 4 or 5 months after you just upgraded. Waste is waste regardless of what end of the wheel you take it from.

Freecycling is not begging or scavenging for the sake of a temporary budgetary short fall, it's a way of life that goes goes back centuries and will survive the current greedy culture that just wants us to buy new things and replace them 5 minutes later with something newer. Hand me downs are not always a bad thing , they are thrift. Some children's clothing is made so well and so timeless that several generations can wear them before they are worn out. Freecycling as we know it now was started in New York City by middle-class people and socialites who grew tired of the waste and even at their rarified cost of living  were having to choose what they spent money on and what they preferred not to. That it took them back to the same values their parents and grandparents held barely 60 years ago is no accident.

Because of this way of life, I have learned how to cook with an assortment of novel unexpected ingredients, I have learned to repair appliances and acquired the skills to use tools that have been abandoned by an entire generation. I have made new friends and been introduced to new cultures.  My reach and impact into other people's lives is greater because I participate in the swapping, giving and reusing. The absolute ethical spine that drives the movement here and in other places is one that fights the instinct of some to isolate themselves and think only of themselves.

I don't for a second suggest that this is the ultimate way of life, this using old or slightly used things only. I feel it's important that you also spend some serious cash with skilled workmen, farmers and merchants who get up in the morning to make a living. I'm not raising the act of charitable giving above and beyond every other thing you can do to the distraction of profit and the destruction of the marketplace for skilled people.  We still need a functioning economy, but if you feel that wasting things is bad and you prefer to spend your money on things you can't make yourself, then freecycling is the route for you.

I do have one proviso about the reusing of things for the sake of reusing things...... Know the value of what you are about to destroy for the sake of arts and crafts, fashion or simple utility. If you are taking a first edition of 1984 to cut amusing shapes into , then you are desecrating a book, but if you take 50 copies of Jaws in paper back  to make coasters, you're ok. If you find vintage clothing and decide to cut it up for curtains, you could be insuring the destruction of the last of such an item. Underclothes especially are hard to find, but clothes of any kind  above a certain age are worth more intact than altered or damaged.  Do you need a spare part off an older thing that still works? be sure the main object is beyond use. Just because YOU don't see any value in the bit of furniture, book, record, painting etc.... does not give you the right to destroy it. Before you make the ultimate gesture of removing an object from it's principle reason of being, be damn sure it's beyond use, once it's gone, it's gone.

still using this

Here's a way my wife and I developed years ago and still use. We call it the Bench G-d,  we take a box or bags  of items we don't want and leave it on a park bench or bus stop. At some point, if we've chosen wisely, more than a few people who actually need the items will stop long enough and help themselves. It helps somtimes to put the word FREE in large friendly letters, but you don't have to. Friend of ours regularly does this by leaving books near the fireplace of her local pub, if anything, the place seems to breed more books now and all of them good for somebody.

A few interesting links you can use to follow up on this.

UK freecycle, a site where you .... swap or give away for free. 
Gumtree ,  sell your stuff
CT home Newcastle ... furniture, appliances service for the less well off.  Dealers not tolerated.

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