Earth Day comes but once a year, but my mother, Helen, practiced the three R’s of environmentalism — reduce, reuse, and recycle — every day.
Case in point: egg cartons. They are perfect for holding jewelry. An empty 12-egg carton cushions a dozen pairs of earrings beautifully, so Mom kept her earrings in several custom-crafted boxes. She often examined them while sitting in a wingback chair by the bay window in my parents’ family room.
“What do you think of these earrings?” she might say while holding one to an earlobe. “Do they make my ears look too big?”
Mom loathed parting with anything she might use one day. If she could also save a few pennies, that sweetened the deal. Oatmeal canisters could hold homemade cookies. Blank sides of Dad’s work papers could entice budding artists. An empty Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle could become a lamp. Anything and everything could be reborn.
“You never know what you can do with that,” Mom would say if we suggested throwing something away. “It’s easy to scatter but hard to gather.”
Mom and Dad joined the environmental movement in its infancy. We lined waste paper cans with plastic shopping bags, and we cleaned our wooden floors with worn-out clothing. We turned empty toilet paper tubes into Pilgrims. Mom washed Styrofoam trays from meat and used them as plates and cookie trays. We didn’t call our efforts repurposing, but that’s what they were.
Mom enjoyed beautiful views and what she called “heavenly breezes,” so I am sure she would have appreciated the environmental boon gifted by social distancing. Air pollution has decreased, Venetian canals have become a haven for jellyfish, and wildlife is having a heyday around the world.
On the flip side, she would have had mixed feelings about the temporary suspension of curbside recycling in some cities, such as Jefferson City. Like me, she wouldn’t have wanted to jeopardize the health of sanitation workers, but she would have shuddered over tossing cereal boxes, milk jugs, and soda bottles into the regular trash. I wonder if I should keep these items until the city resumes its recycling efforts.
Fortunately, I still can practice the three environmental R’s. Mason jars from jam, relish, and other food make stylish vases and drinking glasses. Banana peels, coffee grounds, and other scraps enrich compost. Juice bottles filled with trinkets and shredded paper become fun I Spy games. Plastic and glass containers serve as depositories for bacon grease and old cooking oil.
I used to send grease and oil down the drain, but I stopped when I toured Jefferson City’s wastewater treatment plant and learned that household grease can coagulate in my pipes and the city’s pipes. That’s when a memory surfaced of my mother’s pouring grease into a yellow-topped peanut butter container, closing it tightly, and placing it in the trash. Thanks, Mom!
I sometimes wonder why Mom enjoyed repurposing so much. Did it stem from her childhood during the Great Depression? Probably. She never had lots of money, so that came into play, too. However, I think she primarily liked the challenge of figuring out how to reuse something. She found it fulfilling, and she wanted to do her part to help the environment. Repurposing requires creativity with a few pinches of common sense — two qualities Mom possessed in abundance.
I enjoy the same challenge, but I know that sometimes I frustrate my husband and children. Case in point: wrapping paper.
“Just rip it off,” they say.
Sometimes I do rip paper off and place it in the recycling bin, but I frequently save a few pieces to wrap gifts or line drawers. Growing up, I ironed wrapping paper and rolled it up on cardboard tubes. I still have several vintage fragments, mostly from baby gifts. One piece features embossed pink booties, so velvety they draw my finger like a magnet. A few booties would look lovely on a homemade greeting card. Now that’s a good idea.