gerund or present participle: recycling
It is July 2014 and I am helping my aunt build an enclosure for a mother hen and a dozen or so chicks that are several weeks old. Up until then they had been kept indoors, in the kitchen, with an old cardboard box serving as shelter during the night. As the chicks grew they needed to be moved outdoors, and it was necessary to build them a larger enclosure where they would have access to more space, sun, and grass. I walk with my aunt to the back of the garden, to a spot that resembles a miniature junkyard complete with rusted pipes, broken doors, planks of wood, glass panes, plastic crates, and much more. This is where everything goes once it is no longer in use, either because it has broken or because it has been replaced with another. Everything has been exposed to the elements, sometimes for years, and some barely covered by a piece of corrugated metal. We rummage through the pile for what we need: a drawer without any handles, four lengths of rebar, wire meshing, a sheet of linoleum.
The drawer will serve, standing up, as the back wall for the makeshift chicken pen, but it needs a more stable foundation and the roof extended using other planks of wood that we pull out of the wreckage. And for that we need nails. My aunt points to a metal cabinet with more odds and ends and an assortment of containers with nuts and bolts, ball bearings, and nails. The only nails I see are in an old dominos wooden box, sans lid (see Fig. 1), and all of the nails inside are rusted and bent. I still remember the time it took sifting through those nails, looking for the ones in the best condition, then kneeling down on the pavement and trying to pound them as straight as possible with a hammer. Whether it was the nails themselves or the act of manual labor, that moment is inseparable for me from the memories it brought to the surface of my grandfather and the tool shed he kept when I was a child. As a young boy I was fascinated by all of the curious objects he kept in there and would spend a good amount of time picking through boxes and containers that seemed to hold nothing but old and broken parts of things. What I can still recall to this day is the smell of the place – of rust and metal – which working the bent nails rekindled for me. And I know that some of the objects we recycled into the chicken pen were once handled by him, functioning in their new lives as a link to the past – suggestive of what they are no longer, and also that we have changed as well.
My grandfather’s tool shed and the miniature junkyard in my aunt’s garden complicate conventional notions of waste and the phases objects pass through from use to neglect. They are also examples of attitudes toward recycling in the developing world as compared to what we might find in developing countries. More than a quarter century after the fall of communism, Romania is still the poorest country in the European Union, and for a significant number of its citizens in rural, farming regions, life is still a matter of surviving with the bare minimum. This reality forces us to acknowledge that to recycle in such places means a completely different thing than it does for you and me as we sort our used containers into paper, plastic, and metal to be picked up by the curb once a week. While we might be tempted to think of our actions as environmentally conscious or done with the best of intentions, we seldom consider that it is a luxury to even contemplate environmental concerns or where a tuna can might end up if we don’t place it in the correct recycling stream.
gerund or present participle: upcycling
In the West upcycling has become increasingly fashionable, a consumer fetish for taking trash and discarded items and turning them into upscale, often high-priced items of leisure and decoration. For example, alongside the rubbish heaps of Londons we might find artist Rupert Blanchard who creates industrial-style furniture from landfill-bound materials: discarded drawers, refuse plywood, used doorknobs and other hardware found at flea markets. In the United States, self-taught welder Raymond Guest takes vintage tailgates from Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks, and along with repurposed wood and metal parts turns them in thousand-dollar benches for the backyard or your very own man-cave.
If you’re crafty enough, numerous websites have sprung up within the past decade or so catering to the DIY spirit and offering endless suggestions on how to turn old into new. One such site, Upcycle That: Upcycling Ideas and Inspiration (www.upcyclethat.com), has been around since 2012 and bills itself as “a resource for people interested in reusing items in innovative ways.” Among the hundreds of ideas you can find out how to make your own beer bottle lamp, drum kit lamp, egg carton flower lights, bottle cap portraits, and a slew of suggestions for turning wooden pallets into tables, chairs, storage containers, and more. What such sites geared to the everyday craftsman have in common with artists such as Blanchard and Guest is the assumption that one has either the luxury of time or money (or often both) to undertake such projects or afford them.
Ultimately, the ability to upcycle is a sign of privilege, of a freedom to choose a certain aesthetic that makes an ecologically correct statement. As post-communist countries are catching up to the West with its patterns of consumption and disposal of material goods, the move from recycling as necessity towards recycling and upcycling as a rhetorical statement is taking place. Upcycling, in its strive to turn exhausted material into a valuable commodity, foregrounds and celebrates the creator of the commodity more than the material, whereas recycling out of necessity does not concern itself primarily with the talents of its maker by focusing on utility. Consequently, repurposing objects in developing countries does not fit the decisive element in the definition of upcycling, namely, the upward move in the monetary value of the object, focusing instead on the object’s presence and its functionality. A woman in Eastern Europe using straps of cloth from old rags to make a floor rug does so without ever knowing that a similar rug would cost upside of $100 on Etsy.com. On the contrary, upcycling in the West, regardless of its (undoubtedly praiseworthy) power to promote responsible patterns of consumption, remains largely bound by its cultural status as fetish.
~Andrei & Natasha
Photos: Recycled/Upcycled scarves and pencil pouch made primarily from discarded Soviet-era workwear/uniforms.
Each month we will select and feature several stories from the archive, contributing reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world, as well as addressing that particular story's relationship and resonance to the larger theoretical and philosophical principles underlying the project. The complete text of the original stories can be accessed by navigating the interactive map based on location (using the zoom and pan feature), or by author's name on the bar to the left of the map.