For most folks, it seems the terms “reuse” and “recycle” have become associated with the annoying task of rinsing out containers and breaking down boxes for neighborhood recycling pickup. But within the realm of permaculture, the concepts are not only critical to the practice, but they’re also packed with layers of meaning and endless possibilities for application. The patterns of our earth and the life here in are inherently (re)cyclical: leaves fall to the ground, decompose and provide mulch and nutrients to help the next tree sapling to grow; worms serve as bioremediators and eat through decaying matter and contaminants like oil and plastic to give back transformed nutrient dense composting material; birds reuse fallen twigs, leaves, and even human-made detritus to sculpt nests to protect their future pollinating flock. The examples of recycling in nature are abundant.

We humans are constantly recycling too, whether we know it or not. Internally, our digestive system recycles proteins into essential amino acids. Our minds synthesize information and ideas to generate new concepts and mediums through teaching, creating art, story telling, etc. As for our habitats, we strive to reuse materials for ourselves, our homes and places of work, but over and over again we end up creating way more waste than recycled material. Although it can be overwhelming and discouraging to think about how something so innate and essential to our life on earth could be so hard for us to carry out on a broader scale, it helps to consider the ways we already recycle and to think creatively about ways to expand the methods of recycling in our own lives and communities.

In Durham, NC, there is a community non-profit known as The Scrap Exchange whose “mission is to promote creativity, environmental awareness, and community through reuse.”  In other words, a thrift store extraordinaire. For starters, they set up shop by getting donated space in an under-utilized mall. They take donations from local businesses, organizations and individuals including anything from tiny old library microfiche films to massive building scraps from contractors. In the middle, are all sorts of things like computer parts, fabric yardage, plastic bins, magazines, zippers, doll parts, and on and on. These materials are sorted and organized by volunteers and employees and priced for next to nothing. They offer free classes and collaborative spaces for community members to come together to create and learn and even host birthday parties and art making events for adults and kids alike. And they are keeping these materials out of our landfills!

Cast off materials and resources are all around us and have endless uses if we are willing to think outside of the box. If you are looking for materials for your own permaculture needs, homestead projects or creative endeavors, why not look to your local scrap exchange.  And if nothing like this exists in your area, maybe one of you inspired citizens of the earth can start one? Or start small, by asking friends, neighbors and local businesses to exchange or donate unwanted resources. Start a swap meet or find an existing one in your area. Keep and use those glass spaghetti sauce jars and lids; don’t put them in the recycling bin! Perhaps you are looking to  make a sturdy path in your garden – why not collect pieces of broken tiles that Home Depot is about to put in the dumpster? Or maybe you need mulch for your garden? Instead of buying it, why not collect and use your neighbors bags of leaves and lawn “trash?” Did you take a class or learn a skill recently that is helping you to be a more effective gardener, kombucha maker, or conflict resolver? Don’t just keep it for yourself, recycle and share the knowledge with friends and family!

The possibilities for recycling are so much more than just your community recycling program. It is a way of life and always has been. Start small but think big – you can be an example to others and a slow, but steady force for global change.

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