Why Reuse Is My Favorite “R”

Grandma Inge © Rebecca Rockefeller

Grandma Inge’s tip
put used coffee grounds in car
you’ll be happier

I come by my love of reuse thanks to my Grandma Inge, an artist and world traveler who foraged for materials wherever she went, reused almost everything, and threw very little out. Like so many people who have known war or want, as well as all who’ve grown up  in countries with an intact culture of reuse, my Grandma Inge saw very little as garbage; almost anything she touched was evaluated and turned into a durable resource.

Young Inge © Airyka Rockefeller

I suspect my grandmother’s upcycling habits were ingrained survival instincts cemented into her being when she and her family fled their home in Danzig, Poland during World War II. This constant foraging and reuse kept her alive during instability, and when she was settled safely during peacetime, these same habits kept her daily life spicy with a variety of creative projects and unexpected windfalls.

Every day, with every other step she took, be it for a mile along a trail or 5 feet from a car to a front door, she checked the ground for things, all kinds of things, anything she could use in a sculpture, painting, or collage. My sister and I watched the ground for her and offered our found objects to her – I can’t remember her ever turning anything down, and I’ll never forget how delighted she was the day I found a crushed wrist watch for her, how happy she was with each tiny gear she salvaged from its carcass.

Web Inge Frankel Drawing of Her Home in the Bay

She also checked each and every pay phone and vending machine for forgotten change, and made a surprising amount of money this way. Along with the pennies she found on the ground, she had enough pocket change to keep her in as much of her beloved chocolate as she desired.

She turned odd bits of yarn into free-form crocheted beings, strange and wonderful creatures that could combine an elephant’s trunk with a bear’s body and an extra leg or fancy double tail. All of Inge’s animals were stuffed with washed-clean plastic produce bags, so they could be tossed into a washing machine or handed to a drooling baby with no ill effects.

During one summer’s family camping expedition, Grandma Inge bought me a pack of gum and turned each foil wrapper into a different wild animal, so that I had an entire circus to play with as we bumped along the coast of California in her motor home.

Grandma Inge never bought an air freshener for her car, she preferred to put her used coffee grounds into a plastic bag wedged into the dashboard, because the smell of coffee made her happy.

Inge Frankel Skiing Glamorously

For those of us who have grown up in modern America, where our popular culture encourages us to judge ourselves and others on the quantity, virgin status, and brand name of our possessions, a lifestyle of reuse-by-choice can seem, well, a bit uncool.

At this point, most of us are on a first-name basis with Recycling, and we may even have the catchy “3 Rs” filed away in our memories: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Some add “Rot” on there (as in compost), and others have up to seven Rs, variously defined.  I have my own favorite Rs, three of them: Reduce, Reuse, and Rethink. I may love Reuse most of all because it connects me with my Grandma Inge. You don’t need a Grandma Inge to love Reuse, though; there are many other reasons – Here are a few:

Economic: According to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for each 10,000 tons of waste handled in a year, reuse creates from 28 jobs (wooden pallet repair) to 296 jobs (computer reuse). Landfills and incinerators create 1 job for each 10,000 tons of annual waste. Recycling also creates jobs, but reuse is even more labor-intensive, as it requires a knowledgeable workforce for the skilled sorting and astute inventory management demanded to get the most out of reused materials. Even better, many reuse jobs are in small local businesses, which further helps to grow sustainable local economies.

Environmental: Reuse trumps recycling here. Recycling, or the transformation of a product at the end of its useful life into something new, requires the input of energy, both to transport the waste en masse to manufacturing facilities and to complete the actual breaking down and re-making of the material. Some materials have a closed-loop cycle, but many require the input of additional virgin material in order to be useful as consumer goods once again. Reuse can be done by individuals at home and by small local businesses, lowering energy input and transportation carbon footprints. But don’t take my word for it, check the math in this comparison of recycling vs reuse of computers, done with the United States Electronics Environmental Benefits Calculator.

Personal: I challenge you to give reuse a try and see what happens – I’m betting you’ll find joy in the creative thinking it sparks, and pride in your work, as you turn stuff you think you’re done with into a freshly useful item you need. I don’t have stats on personal happiness from reuse, but I can help you find inspiration and tutorials to guide you along the path to reuse. I’ve spent the last year creating a database filled with carefully selected reuse tutorials here at Trash Backwards. Whether you’re already a dedicated reuser like my Grandma Inge or a complete newbie, we’ve got the links you need to turn your trash into a resource.

Go ahead, give it a try: Name an item you’d like to reuse. Our web app will channel Grandma Inge and pull a few great ideas from its sleeve.

Click Through to Our Updated Web App Home Page and Input Your Item or Simply Get Inspired

Click Through to Our Updated Web App Home Page and Input Your Item or Simply Get Inspired

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Categories: DIY, Think About It, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff, Upcycle


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9 Comments on “Why Reuse Is My Favorite “R””

  1. February 8, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    What a lovely tribute to your grandmother and how she now touches the future through you.

    • February 8, 2013 at 8:26 am #

      Thank you! Every time my kids pick something up from a sidewalk or parking lot and bring it home to reuse it, I like to think Grandma Inge is smiling down at them!

  2. February 8, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    What an amazing woman your grandmother is and beautiful. I know from growing up with grandparents who lived through the depression that their lessons become ingrained in us and a part of who we are. When it comes to the 3 Rs, I tend to think of 4 Reduce, Reuse, Repair, then Recycle. My grandparents took me on a cross country trip to California when I was 9, we didn’t have a motor home, just a Chevy car at a time when they were made here in the USA and it didn’t even come with air conditioning, it was a wonderful trip I’ve never forgotten.

    • February 8, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      I love your 4 Rs! Repair is such an important one, and I’m totally with you regarding putting recycling last in line. Your own childhood summer cross country trip without air conditioning is exactly the sort of gift I’m trying to give my own kids now – Focusing more on experiences and less on fancy things creates such a wealth of memories and knowledge!

      • February 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

        It was a great trip and something I repeated several times with my boys. Of course we did have the stop at Disney land, Magic Mountain and Knottsberry Farms. the rest of the time was spent with family, friends and natural places such as the highest peak in Colorado, and the Grand Canyon. I think you are such an inspiration not only for the rest of us but also for your children. They will remember all the things you taught and shared with them.

  3. ravenspuppets
    February 8, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    Great and interesting post- good resources also and inspiring

  4. February 16, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    This blog, and the app, are beyond brilliant! It’s all laid out so thoughtfully. And the ideas you’ve put together could get even the most stubborn consumer to think out of the box. Do you have a widget that I could post on my blog? I’d love to link to you.
    I don’t know how to reblog ( maybe that’s a function of being on an iPad..that reblog wheel just spins and spins) but you are always welcome to reblog or quote or link to my site. The more the merrier!


  1. 25 Uses For Your Coffee Grounds | Trash Backwards - March 22, 2013

    […] but definitely our favorite, Grandma Inge’s best coffee grounds reuse tip is to put a bowl of grounds in the car to keep you (and the car) […]

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