The Genetic Theory Behind Recycling

(This essay originally appeared in The Beach Reporter, the community newspaper in Manhattan Beach, CA.)

I come from a long line of recyclers. Of course before it became environmentally essential, and even fashionable to recycle, recyclers were called pack rats because of their compulsion to never throw anything away that could be used again.

The Sierra Club should erect a shrine to my mother, who is the original recycler. You never threw anything away when I was growing up without it first being inspected by my mother for the possibility that it could be reborn into something else. We had seven kids in my family, but altogether we only generated about one bag of garbage a month. Everything we used was constantly being recycled into some new form of life.
We had to be careful unwrapping presents, because my mother saved the wrapping paper, ribbons and bows to be used for the next birthday or holiday. Aluminum foil was recycled after its first, or even second use by flattening it back out and using it on something else.

Food scraps went into a compost heap, cans were saved to be brought in for a deposit, empty toilet paper rolls were saved for crafts. God forbid you should ever throw away a pair of nylons with a run in them. After a washing, they made great stuffing for handmade pillows or stuffed animals.

I think the proudest my mother ever was of me was when I was about eight years-old, and I saved all the shells from the colored, hard-boiled Easter eggs, and made them into a mosaic by gluing them onto a piece of cardboard. It smelled a little funny, but what a great use for those leftover egg shells you never thought there was a use for…

For years I went through a period of denial, and didn’t save anything. Ribbons, bows, wrapping paper, and pantyhose all went right into the trash. If it wasn’t disposable, I didn’t use it.

But a funny thing happened to me. My genes kicked in, and one day I started to save strange things. It started with those green strawberry baskets, and escalated until one day when I looked under the kitchen sink, and out tumbled cardboard paper towel and toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, those little round tops from milk jugs, and about a hundred strawberry baskets.

It is perhaps one of nature’s little jokes that a pack rat (or recycler) is destined to marry a person who doesn’t even think to save empty shoe boxes or film containers.

Perhaps recycling had its roots not in environmentalism, but in the need to stretch a dollar as far as you could. We didn’t save old nylons because we pictured a landfill full of them taking over the planet one day. Rather, it was a way to be thrifty. It’s amazing how much money you can save if you use your aluminum foil over and over.

Saving things for yourself and your family is one thing, but to do it for all humanity… Do you know how many exciting things you can do with old greeting cards?

In the Sierra Club shrine to my mother, there should be a special exhibit for old clothes that were handed down from one sister to the next. With six girls in our family, every item of clothing was used to its full potential. And then the fabric, if it wasn’t completely threadbare, was made into doll clothes.

We never gave an item to Goodwill, because by the time our family was done with it, it wasn’t good for anything else, and deserved to rest in peace.

In our family we recycled bags before it became a thing to do. My mother paid a nickel for a department store bag with a handle in about 1956, and I swear she still has that bag today. The store went out of business years ago, but she still has their bag.

Every time I think about throwing something out, I sense her looking over my shoulder asking me, “If you’re not going to use that, can I have it? I’m sure I can figure out something to do with it.” And she would.

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