The Minimalist Scavenger

The concepts of minimalism and simplicity have significantly improved the quality of my life. At the heart of these philosophies is reclaiming space and a healthy relationship with stuff. Possessions are here to serve us, not for filling a void or using up our time in maintenance. Less stuff allows for time and money to be focused on priorities, passions, relationships and experiences.

Pulling all items from an area, categorizing them, removing excess mindfully and organizing the rest effectively creates space. This in turn brings clarity and functionality. By removing space wasting items there is room for what truly brings value. Doing more with less is not deprivation; it is freedom and efficiency.

I have done a lot of this work, yet there is still more to be done. To temper accumulating tendencies I consistently consider whether what I bring into my life is aligned with my goals. I attempt to use realism to determine whether tasks are feasible and valuable. By paying attention to disorder and lack of space I am able to design and implement systems that work better for me.

My accumulating behavior is only partially a fault of my own. It is also a result of living in a wasteful society. There is so much potential being carted off to landfills. There are materials available for artists and creators to reuse. It may take ample creativity and work, but there are functional items to be made or refurbished.

Sadly, economic forces have created the phenomenon of obsolescence. The value of labor and global production make quality handmade goods and repair rather expensive. Particle board bookshelves are a great example of this. Low density particle board is cheap, but not durable. The formaldehyde resins that were harmless to the consumer become an issue after the use stage.

William McDonough demonstrates how our current product life cycles can be seen as cradle to grave. A material is extracted and rather quickly reaches the end of its life. He coined the term cradle to cradle as an alternative. By mimicking nature; waste is merely input for another system. In cradle to cradle philosophy, materials are separated into the two categories of biological and technical nutrients. I find this to be a useful distinction. Technical nutrients are infinitely recyclable; a used product becoming the feedstock for a new one. These products could be regulated by placing responsibility on the producer, creating an incentive for recoverable design. Biological nutrients could be used in agricultural and soil building enterprises, working in concert with fungi and vermiculture. If packaging was to consist of truly biodegradable materials, such as bioplastics and mushroom packaging, our waste stream would become much more manageable.

We are improving. EPA’s 2012 data has us at 34% recovery (recycling and composting) of 250 million tons of waste annually, not including industrial, hazardous or construction waste. 12% is combusted for energy. This leaves over 30 million tons of food waste buried in landfills each year.

Part of developing urban resilience is in changing our relationship to materials. By improving our lives through minimalism and simplicity we can be more vigilant at building community, refusing obsolescence, and transforming waste to resources.