Re-purposingApril 26, 2010
When I detached the back of my two year-old’s booster seat and placed it on the kitchen table, all I saw was curved plastic. My son proceeded to grab the seat, put it on his head and gallop around the kitchen shouting “Yee Haw!” because what he saw was a cowboy hat. He re-purposed something destined for the back shelf in the garage and turned it into fuel for his imagination.
This is how two year-old cowboys think.
A few days ago I was reading a childrens’ classic to him– Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The book is about a man and his machine and their journey to avoid obsolescence. When diesel shovels become popular, Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel have to travel out of the big city to find work. They end up in a small town working to dig a hole for the new Town hall.
At this point in the initial process of writing story the Author, Virginia Lee Burton, literally dug her characters into a hole with no way to escape. She couldn’t imagine a way to conclude the story.
When Burton told friends about her writer’s block over dinner one night, the couple’s 12 year old son, Dickie Berkenbush came up with the solution that makes the book what it is today. That 12 year-old boy thought it would be best to re-purpose the steam shovel and make it the heater for the new building.
We hear the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” a lot, but I think more important than any of those three behaviors is “repurpose.” In my first post, I wrote about how tinkering gives you a new way to see the world. I believe it does this in a more profound way than the techniques in the catchy phrase above.
The idea of “reducing” often doesn’t sit right with me. Obviously we don’t want to be wasteful, but many of the solutions involving reducing are about changing our lifestyle in ways that most people don’t want to do. Making ourselves more energy efficient reduces energy consumption and this is a good thing, but walking around in a dark house also reduces- just in a more toe-stubbing sort of way.
Re-using is like the little brother of re-purposing. Do we need to throw the coffee filter away after every cup? No, we don’t. Do we need to change our razor blades constantly? No, we don’t. Does our coffee taste as fresh and does our skin feel as smooth when we re-use less than optimal products? Probably not. Re-using is good, but it also is simply delaying the inevitable. After we re-use something enough we are still going to throw the item away.
Recycling is tricky. When taking all the different steps needed to pick up, manipulate, repackage and reship, recycling actually uses a lot of energy. Depending on how the government runs the program, it can be costly as well; because all budget items compete with all others, that money could be better spent improving our lives in other ways. Not that recycling is a bad thing, for example landfills are smelly eye-sores, but as Ken Black of wisegeek.com states:
Given the fact that any product can take a significant amount of energy to recycle, there are other options that can be considered. Some of these may be just as good as recycling, if not better.
Instead of sending a crane across the state to lift Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel out of the hole, strap it to a truck, crush it, smelt it down and send it to be remolded and reshipped as a new product– the solution was to use it for another purpose.
Re-purposing items that no longer serve their original goal is essentially the same thing in the machine world as organ donation is in the world of flesh and blood. The salvageable parts that extend the lives of the recipients also extend the life of at least part of the donor.
Don’t think of organ donations as giving up part of yourself to keep a total stranger alive. It’s really a total stranger giving up almost all of themselves to keep part of you alive.
The gravity of the situation is different with human beings and household junk, but the concept is still the same. We can extend the life of multiple pieces of “junk” when we look at them with a young pair of eyes. Ask yourself what you can still do with this junk before sending it to a premature death in a smelly landfill.
Can you take it apart and donate some of its “organs” to another dying product?
Even if it is only a temporary stay of execution for the recipient, try to train your brain to think like a re-purposer and see things the way a child sees things.