“He saved string, scrap wood, old screws, nuts and bolts, jam jars, coffee cans, cigar boxes, orange crates. He threw nothing away … He banged the nails out of old boards, then flattened them and saved them? From “Dear Old Dad: Memories of My Father” by the American writer, Paul Theroux
“Our garage is still a mausoleum of bikes, mowers and machines of all types and stripes. My Dad is not exactly a hoarder, but he does still maintain that the 6 old Superser heaters he has there will likely come in handy sometime soon. Ditto the 4 or 5 propeller mowers, 2 or 3 ride on tractor mower, and a thousand other units of mechanical detritus that have sat in our cavernous garage for so long.” From “Did You Hear That Mammy Died?” by Seamus O’Rourke.
As a child I holidayed in my grandparent’s home that was located in a fairly remote part of East Galway, near the village of Eyrecourt. Like many people in rural Ireland in the 1950’s, my mother’s family were self-sufficient farmers, living as their ancestors had for generations. Electricity was still a novelty in the house and used only for lighting. The gramophone was wind-up and the radio had not yet arrived. Horses provided both transport and power. The pony and trap were used for Mass going and occasional shopping. The same horse pulled the plough, brought home the hay and the turf and helped cut the wheat and oats. In this atmosphere there was no time, or room, for waste. Everything was recycled – flour bags, cloth, timber, twine, paper, bottles, nails, tin cans, etc. Consequently, the carbon footprint of my grandparent’s generation on the planet must have been very small.
My father, who came from a poorer family, experienced real poverty as a child and learned the value of things as a result. Like Thoreau’s father he was a hoarder. He hated to throw away things. However, he was also an all-round handyman and took great pleasure in recycling the bits and bobs that he kept in the shed, in a variety of tin cans and cardboard boxes. Skill wise, he was a Jack of all trades and when called upon to be a carpenter, plumber, mechanic, cobbler or electrician, he would resort to the shed for recyclable material.
He also had less macho skills. When he was in his late 80’s, and living alone, I called for a visit one day. He produced one of his shirts and asked me what I thought. Beaming with pride, he then told me he had spent several hours the previous evening turning the collar of the shirt. Though the collar was worn the rest of the shirt was not and it was too good to throw away, he said, so he had reversed the collar and given the shirt a new lease of life.
Every now and then I go to our local amenity centre to dispose of goods that once played a part in our lives. On a recent trip I’ve parted with clothes, magazines, lap tops, radios, electric heaters, kettles and saucepans. But I, too, have a shed and while I lack my father’s technical skills, I love to retain anything of potential use in the hope that it will solve a problem someday. Recently 2 single bed frames, stripped of their coverings, padding and springs, made an ideal compost retainer for my garden waste.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that seems to run on built-in obsolescence. It is so hard to find parts for machines or locate people to repair them. Where once the element in a kettle could be replaced now it is encased under a metal floor and can’t be reached. Expensive phones and computers cannot be fixed for the same reason. I had to write off a good lawn mower because I was told it couldn’t be repaired. Recently my wife had to dispense with an iphone 7 because it would not be upgraded to the newer operating systems. At other times, as an electrician pointed out about our dish washer the cost of parts and labour are almost as expensive as the cost of a new machine.
Last year I went to Specsavers to have my sight tested. I needed new lenses. This company’s selling ploy is to offer 2 pairs of frames for the price of one. Of course, like all these bogus offers, you always pay for what you get – nothing is ever free. If you suggest to the good people in Specsavers that you will pay half the price for the one pair of frames you will get nowhere.
While some people like to change their frames with changing fashions, I liked the frames I had. But when I suggested that they use my current frames and replace the lens, the young woman attending me was perplexed at such an idea and had to seek advice as to whether this technological feat was possible. However, though I got what I wanted I more or less paid the same for my new glasses as I would have had I accepted their usual 2 for one.
Our country needs more people like Ger Whyte, a social worker from Roscrea. One day, when he was out walking, he came across an abandoned washing machine. He took it home and, while dismantling it, realised that its aluminium drum would make an excellent fire pit because of its shape, design and the inbuilt holes that originally took water away. Later, exploring the Silvermine Mountains, near where he lives, he found dozens of other machines. He now has a useful sideline selling fire pits for €60 each and in the process reducing the number of machines we sent all the way to China for recycling.
It is reassuring to see local authorities collecting glass bottles, paper, metals and electrical goods even if very little of the recycling of these materials happens in Ireland. Clothing can also be recycled though I’m never impressed by the so called “charities” that offer €5 for a bag of clothes that might have cost hundreds to buy in the first case.
However, the tide seems to be turning. There is a growing recognition that waste could be reduced to making more goods repairable. There is also a growing belief that our education system needs to cater for technical as well as academic education. A new emphasis is being placed on apprenticeships and technical skills. Questions are being asked about the sources of some manufactured goods and whether people in distant lands are being exploited, producing cheap clothing, in particular. With a growing number of shops on our main streets lying empty due to changes in the retail trade wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were soon occupied by repair shops: dressmakers, cobblers, electricians, weavers and other artisans.
Climate change is very real but we could all do our part to modify it while governments and other global institutions tackle the bigger issues.