Last week I was out walking my dog on trash day. As I was walking past my neighbor’s trash heap (I say heap because they always have more trash than will fit in the trash can and they just pile it up on the road), I noticed a cute wire basket that was decorated with painted wooden sunflowers. I knew that it would look perfect in my kitchen, so I picked it up to see what was wrong with it. It was in great shape, except it was missing some dividers inside that would have turned the space into very useful compartments. The holders for the dividers were still there, but the slats themselves were missing. I knew that I could make some little dividers to fit it, so I decided to take it home.
As I was walking away with my new find, the door to the house flew open and the woman came running out.
“You can’t take that,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. “It was in the trash.”
“You don’t just take stuff out of people’s trash,” she said.
“Why not? Clearly you didn’t want it. What’s wrong with someone who has a use for it keeping it out of the landfill?”
“Well, uh,” she stuttered, trying to find the reason why this wasn’t okay.
Finally, unable to come up with a reason (other than she didn’t want someone else to have her stuff), she challenged me. “Well, what are you going to do with it? It’s all broken.”
“It’s not all broken,” I said. “It’s only missing these dividers. I can make some of those out of some old scraps of wood, paint them to match the basket, and it’ll be good as new.”
“Huh,” she said, realization dawning. “I lost those dividers when we moved. I never thought to try to make new ones. I just wrote it off as broken and unusable.” (I didn’t even point out that, even without the dividers, it was still a nice little basket.)
“A lot of people do that,” I told her. “Sometimes all it takes is a little thought and ingenuity and you can salvage things to be useful again. A lot of people write off things that still have useful life left in them.”
“Do you do this a lot?” she asked.
“What? Pick things out of people’s trash? Sometimes, but only if I see something I can really use and it’s easy to get to. I don’t dive into dumpsters or turn trash cans upside down to see what’s inside. Even so, I’ve found quite a few things this way that I’ve been able to get good use out of.”
“We always seem to be throwing out so much stuff,” she said, waving her hand over her trash heap. “We buy and toss so many things. Did you know our garbage rates went up because we can’t keep it down to one can’s worth a week? Maybe I need to think about things a little more before I throw them out.”
“Or you could at least have a yard sale and make some money. You probably could have sold this basket for a little money. Someone like me would have been willing to repair it.”
She stood there, thinking about what I’d said. I could see what was coming next, but I waited.
Finally she asked, shyly, “Can I have the basket back? It really did look good in my kitchen and I hate to get rid of it if I can fix it.”
“Sure,” I said, handing it over. “If you need help making the dividers, let me know and I’ll show you how.”
I’ll admit, I was a little sad to see it go. It would have looked nice in my kitchen. But I was glad to have shown her the frugal light. Hopefully she’ll think twice in the future before throwing something out that is still good. I doubt she’ll be out scouring trash piles for her own treasures, but if she repairs or repurposes just a few things as a result of our conversation, I will have at least kept a few items out of the landfill.
Sometimes people just need to see that things can still be useful. We’re so conditioned in our culture to toss out anything that is no longer perfect. We know that we can easily go to the store and buy a replacement, so we often don’t even attempt to repair or repurpose something that has been wounded in some way. Plus there’s a stigma attached to keeping “broken” items. Sometimes simply showing someone how something can be made new, attractive, and useful again is enough to nudge them along the less wasteful path. I hope my neighbor learns this lesson.
I didn’t tell her that a year ago I took a perfectly good, almost new, vacuum cleaner with all the attachments from her trash heap. It was a bagless vacuum and all it needed was a new $20 filter and it was as good as new. She might have asked for that back, too, and I’m not giving that one up.