Posts Tagged ‘reuse’

PO: Recycling with cheap energy vs Reuse

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

If the people touting Peak Oil are correct, we are nearing the end of ‘cheap’ energy. While the projected $5/gallon gas, and rise in heating oil, natural gas, and propane costs to 50% more than last winter, may seem horribly expensive, the fact is that we may be seeing $12 gas in the next .. um .. four years, now. Cheap energy may well be over. Assuming it is, or for those looking to live a lifestyle with a lower carbon footprint, I ponder .. recycling!

I read some years ago that glass is the only consumer material that it pays to recycle. The energy needed to reprocess aluminum cans and plastics, transporting the materials to recycling facilities, then to manufactures to process the reclaimed material into new products – is still higher than the energy needed to produce those same products from virgin sources. Only government subsidies make the effort pay for those involved.

But now transportation and fuel and electricity costs are rising. Even government subsidies won’t be enough to keep recycling working.

And recycling has only ever been a philosophical or emotional benefit to the family and individual (unless they work for a recycler). A luxury, low cost by little cost benefit.

Scrap Iron and similar metals has been with us for a long time, and still pays. You might call your local scrap dealer, and ask what the prices are like – for metal being processed to ship to China, today’s current largest user of scrap steel and iron. Is this recycling, salvage for later use, or scavenging resources that will be lost to us?

With the end of cheap energy, we will have fewer luxuries. Luxury in four years will mean something that today looks like a necessity. What value the microwave oven and freezer when the electricity bill is too high to pay? Luxuries will mean something different to many of us, in the next few years.


I grew up poor, on a farm in Iowa. For the parents that might read this, it didn’t feel like poor, then or now. It was the way our family lived.

But I recall the Pioneer Seed Corn bag. A few years Pioneer Seed Corn handed Dad a plastic bag. Thicker plastic than today’s Zip-Loc bags, quite durable, the Pioneer logo in yellow and green (not that they wanted to look like they went with John Deere like butter with rice). Mom used that bag for years. She kept cookies, brownies, and other food in that bag and the several that followed, in later years. A simple, clear plastic bag with a Pioneer logo. Maybe 12 inches by 18. Re-use. It kept food in nice condition, was handier than Saran Wrap. I think the last I saw of it was many years later, filled with sewing patterns, another with scraps of material, etc. Mom may still have one or two.

The Amish consider clothes to be luxuries, and live quite frugally. They wear their good set of clothes for worship. When they get worn, they get a new set for worship. And wear the old set for everyday work. We did something like that. I wore jeans almost all my life. When they got worn from going to school, they were chore clothes. Most of my clothes were that way – used for ‘good’ occasions when new, more casual when they started showing wear.

And this is a powerful way to reduce the clothing budget. Consider carefully every garment purchase: How long will it wear? Will it work for nice occasions, then later casual, and later as chore or work clothes? Will it wear well enough to be handed down for wear to someone smaller or younger?

I have t-shirts I bought at Sam’s Club four and five years ago. I liked the feel of the (logo free) fabric. Last year I discovered that the manufacturer went out of business. When the t-shirt starts showing wear, first fading, I start wearing it only for work around the shop and the house. When it starts showing holes I use it at night for sleeping. Then they are cut up for shop rags. Comfortable and useful, even as rags. I seldom find a printed t-shirt intended to last as long as the print on the shirt. This kind of ‘expensive energy’ thinking flies in the face of all the t-shirt sellers out there. Everyone from community to community fair to church to people that want to sell anything someone will buy wants to print stuff on a t-shirt. It won’t be long, once we really get into expensive energy, before the garment, not the printing, will determine the sale.

Re-use means going back to the wood handled kitchen knife and hammer. The steel tool will last a long time. The time may come again that we need to replace the handle rather than the tool. We may even need to learn to make handles.

We can start now. Avoid garments, tools, and other purchases intended for single use. Borrow a wedding gown or prom dress, or make one intended to be handed down or re-used. Leave recycling to those that will be rich enough to afford the luxury.

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