The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Product Placement and Free Things

I admit that I am not immune to the bright, shiny, appeal of good design and eco-consumer-culture. I have an expensive refrigerator along those lines. However, the "green" products market has really reached a point of absurdity lately. And I am usually skeptical, and often even downright testy when people start pitching products to me. This holds true whether the product is a breakfast cereal, some supplement or herbal formula that will supposedly make me feel like I am 21 again, a kitchen or garden tool that will cut my work in half, or the newest eco-designer item that looks like it is going to save the planet one purchase at a time.

Recently this skepticism/testiness was engaged when I saw this post from the Sierra Club about "furniture made from reclaimed materials." Always up for some inspiring DIY projects that keep "waste" out of the trash cycle and look cool doing it, I clicked on over. Turns out the post features "green" consumer items ranging in price from $220 to $2,450. Really, Sierra Club, has it come to this? Is product placement really the best you have to offer?

There used to be a cult in Asheville that produced and disseminated bumper stickers reading, "Stop Bitching and Start A Revolution." This slogan has become a useful catchphrase in our household, and in that spirit, I offer this reply to all of those pitching green products:

Five Free or Super-Cheap Things Greener, Healthier, and Cooler Than Any Newfangled Product

  1. Clotheslines: You can buy one if you want to get fancy, or you can make one out of practically any string- or rope-like material. In Nicaragua, we saw clotheslines made of barbed wire. Which reminds me, if you want to see ingenious and inspiring, simple, and inexpensive design solutions, I suggest looking to the Third World. People who don't have much in the way of material resources do amazing and beautiful things with trash. Something about necessity being the mother of invention comes to mind, and I wonder if maybe we could do with a little more necessity. If you really want to splurge, get a clothes-drying rack - for under $10 you can experience the pinnacle of non-electric clothes-drying technology.
  2. Potato Patches: Of course growing your own food in general is a way to reduce your carbon footprint, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I mention potatoes in particular because they are a) easy, b) able to grow practically anywhere, and c) able to produce more food per square food than any other common garden vegetable (although I think sweet potatoes can give them a run for their money) and d) full of the calories and starch that are the bulk of what we eat, unlike let's say goji berries or pomegranate juice. Chop up some potatoes. Throw them on the ground and pile some soil or straw on top of them. Wait a few months. Enjoy your home fries, vichyssoise, or latkes. And guess what? It's gluten-free, organic, and local and you didn't have to pay extra for it!
  3. Libraries: One of my favorite examples of the commons. I was raised by a librarian, and spent some of the best times of my childhood in the cool, quiet, aisles of libraries. Watching a movie recently that included a scene depicting the looting and burning of the Library of Alexandria, I cried my book-nerd eyes out. The internet, of course, is kind of like a big library, but libraries have the advantage of being a place - a physical space devoted to sharing information, stories, knowledge, and art. What could be better?
  4. Gleaning: The term gleaning was originally used to refer to collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after the harvest. But these days there are many food-producing plants left unattended and food left unharvested altogether. Old fruit trees, in particular, are often ignored. I always imagine someone hurrying by an old apple tree on the way to the car on the way to the grocery store, where s/he will buy apple juice, or maybe even an actual apple (in rare cases). The crabapples pictured at the top of this post were gleaned from trees that produce abundantly every year - and are ignored as the fruit ripens, drops, and rots. Another form of gleaning is (with permission, of course) digging up plants from friends' gardens. Along with seed swaps, this is a great way to participate in the gift economy. There is no reason for garden centers to sell lemon balm, for instance, or anything else in the mint family. Plants make food. Plants make more plants. Don't let all that food and all those plants go to waste.
  5. Rescuing cool stuff from the waste stream: At the risk of embodying the Portlandia Dumpster Divers stereotype, I have to note that a lot of useful and beautiful things are thrown "away." Long ago, someone pointed out to me that there is no "away." It's one of the things I've noticed when travelling in the Third World, where trash is often not hidden away. Walking down the street in some towns in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Mexico that I've visited, I initially bristled at trash being strewn everywhere seemingly at random. Then I thought about the fact that we produce way more trash here in the USA, but we hide it, or export it to poorer countries. I have come to appreciate the honesty of just leaving trash out in the open, where someone who might use it can come across it. I'm not advocating litter, just saying that when a place looks "trashy" or "redneck" it might be because people are hanging on to potentially-useful stuff, things that need repair, or materials for making things, rather than just sending broken or messy items to the landfill. My friend Puma is the queen of making truly beautiful, artistic, and useful stuff from scraps and trash and someday I should do a whole post on his craft. In the meantime, I refer you to a cool little collection of photos that he sent me the other day involving furniture made from shipping pallets. Now those are some reclaimed, repurposed, recycled objects I can get behind.
Stepping down off the soapbox. Time to go earn some money so I can buy some stuff.


Dana said...

Good one, Bethy. Real good one. I like the step by step instructions to not being a doosh-bag. Love your style- and of course Puma's too...

Milkweed said...

Can you tell I was in a self-righteous and ball-busting mood? Thanks for not being a doosh-bag, D.

Aimee said...

For ten bucks, I bought a great clotheline tree off Craigslist - you know, one of those spinning racks you see in old people's yards sometimes? I LOVE mine, although I do admit I don't use it as often as I should. I also glean a lot of fruit in season - get brave enough to knock and ask when you see fruit going to waste in someone's yard - it's a great way to meet neighbors. However I will admit here that I can't grow potatoes. I've tried three ears in a row and I can't do it. I harvest fewer potatoes than I plant, ands that can't be right.

Summer said...

Great post! A couple days ago I posted my own mini rant about some folks I run into at one of my community garden spots who seem to fall into the "aren't I the sh*t, I'm growing beans!" category. Sheesh. For rescuing stuff, you may want to add a link to FreeCycle. Oh, and don't forget foraging! I love making elderberry and other jams from wild plants. Make sure you check city/state laws for protection clauses, though. DNR folks can be testy, hehe:)

anna maria said...

Very interesting and useful post. I hope it inspires me to make a gate for a fenced-in part of my garden from stuff I have lying around, including a wood pallet!

Milkweed said...

Thanks, Summer - good additions! And anna maria yay for making things from stuff lying around!

Anne said...

I like the way you put these tips and the commercialism of "green" into perspective. Have to agree with you on most of it. My husband, a city boy who would have never dared to try it without my encouragement, was really proud to build our clothesline this summer. As for the beans comment, maybe that's a start for somebody who previously thought they couldn't make/grow/do anything on their own.