Whenever I set out to save the world I usually start in one place and wind up somewhere completely different, often frustrated. You’d almost think the world doesn’t want to be saved, at least not single-handedly by me.

When recycling came to our community years ago I applauded it. Even before there were vehicles dedicated to the noble task, my wife and I were hauling newspapers to the local recyclers since at that time scrap paper was worth something. We were quite proud of our eco-awareness and responsibility.

Aluminum cans were worth something, too, and we saved those for the poorest family in our old neighborhood because that was one way they supplemented their income.

The system seemed to work pretty well until I started thinking about it. It’s the thinking that usually does me in. I heard stories, too, that recycling uses more energy than it saves. Even if that wasn’t true it was true that recycling did require some energy.

Over time I reasoned that while recycling was a good thing an even better thing would be to simply reuse as much as possible, since that would require no energy at all.

Storm windows coldframe, with the top windows removed.

Since then I have saved nearly uncountable tin cans, glass jars and jugs, cardboard boxes (small and large), plastic containers of all sorts, scrap metal, old wood, and more. It became apparent a long time ago that there is no way I will be able to actually use all of these items in one lifetime. Like money, you can’t take junk plastic with you. Wouldn’t your heirs be happy to get a thousand dollars, and a big cardboard box filled with used plastic containers?

Thinking kicked in, again. If it can’t be used maybe it can be reconfigured. Sometimes this concept actually works. I have made cold frames for the garden out of old storm windows, plant heaters out of junk I have lying around, a solar collector out of scrap wood and a window, seedling containers out of aluminum cans, and like that.

Seedlings growing in truncated aluminum soda cans.

I’ve mined the neighborhood on trash day more than once to find scrap metal and old pieces of wood because such items actually do come in handy sometimes.

I thought transparent plastic could be softened with heat (energy!) and possibly made into panes for cold frames. That might be possible in some other universe but not in mine. The plastic tends to shrink and thicken but not permit itself to be formed in nifty panels, at least not with the limited resources I have in the basement.

A multi-million dollar research project might discover all kinds of applications for used plastic. Unfortunately I don’t have even one million dollars lying around. I don’t even have the time to spend a million dollars much less formulate the plan for a research project.

Glass containers are another story, good for food storage, both on the shelf and in the freezer (if what you’re freezing isn’t liquid), good for containing just about anything except nuclear waste. One of the oldest human-made materials, glass, trumps plastic when it comes to second-hand usefulness.

If our society could figure out how to stop making throw-away items in the first place, use resources prudently, conserve energy, be good stewards of the earth … That would be the best project of all, but it’s not one I’m going to take on single-handedly. We’re all going to have to do this one together.