Garbage in, garbage out: The true value of recycling

Nothing teaches you about recycling quite like spending time on an island.

Throwing something "away" takes on a whole new meaning when all the goods of modern life come in by boat and all the garbage goes out the same way. I've been learning my lessons during visits to Cortes Island, British Columbia, where my wife and I built a little cabin over the past few years.

People on Cortes are loath to throw anything away. You never know when something like a piece of rusty old sheet metal might come in handy to patch a roof leak or close off a crawl space where some varmint's trying to find shelter from the relentless winter rains.

It's not like you can just go down to the store and buy what you need when you live on a small island with a year-round population of about 1,000 people. The hardware section at the general store in Squirrel Cove would fit inside most living rooms, and the stock leans toward nautical items like bilge pumps and brass boat fittings.

There's economic incentive to use things up, too. Taxes on Cortes are determined in part by the cost of barging trash off the island. The more Cortes discards, the more Cortes pays, so everyone tries to make things do double- and triple-duty.

The Cortes dump also serves as the island recycling center, and unlike our local dumps, you can still scrounge the trash. People wade in all the time — there's always a chance you can find what you need without making a trip off-island.

This summer I needed a piece of screening to cover the vent pipe on our outhouse. (The vent keeps the odor down for visitors; the screen keeps flies from diving down the pipe to lay their eggs.) The Squirrel Cove store doesn't sell screening, so I went down to the dump.

I wandered through piles of scrap metal, past the dead water heaters and engine parts, searching for the familiar rectangular shape of a window screen. Soon enough I found a screen fragment that was perfect for my needs, and big enough to provide a replacement piece when I need one. Best thing was, it was nylon screen, so it won't rust.

Another day, I needed a nylon washer to repair a leaking kitchen drain. I thought I had picked up the right part when we made our shopping trip off island. I hadn't. Faced with another trip to town ($30 and half a day on the ferry) for a 50-cent part, I went to the dump and started foraging. I figured I could look for a long time and still be way ahead, compared to the time I'd spend on the ferry.

I found what I needed within 10 minutes, a ring of pale nylon, nearly invisible in the gravel, amid a pile of discarded plastic plumbing pipe. Somewhat the worse for wear, but eminently usable.

There's a "store" at the dump, too, where items that aren't quite ready for the trash heap are free for the taking. It's crammed with the usual thrift-store inventory — faded T-shirts, old jackets, worn shoes, thinning bed linens, dented cookware and baby clothes — but everything's free.

Like any other thrift store, there are some real finds, too, if you're lucky. I came upon a tiny kindling ax that I'll re-handle some day and give to my grandson with a story about where I found it when he was only 3 years old. My wife came upon a picture frame that would have probably fetched $200 in a New York boutique. Either the antiquing job had been done by a master, or it had actually been sitting around for years while the paint cracked and peeled.

The frame looked like it might work in a space we had, so we brought it home. Not only did it fit the wall perfectly — it precisely framed the section of a nautical chart we wanted to put on the wall.

We've been back home for a few weeks, and I'm not looking forward to my next trip to our local dump. I won't be able to scrounge, and I'll have to try to ignore all the perfectly usable stuff we toss long before it's used up.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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