Why is the perfectly sensible reuse and repurposing of everyday things stigmatised?

On a crowded loop station this morning I notice a regular looking middle-class man in his late thirties, standing to the side of the crowd on the station platform, tentatively reaching into the yellow recycle bin to retrieve a mint condition daily newspaper, probably discarded by a fellow traveler minutes earlier. No regular scavenger, his down-turned eyes and the furtiveness of his stance convey a sense of the stigma that society holds for what should be a perfectly rational and sensible act — reusing something that is at hand rather than buying his own.

Commuters on a train, 1955, before smartphones (Getty images).

If the fellow’s self-awareness was derived from recovering the discarded paper rather than buying his own copy, it is completely unjustified. Reading another commuter’s newspaper is not the same as drinking from another’s disposable cup. Newspapers, like books, are ‘manufacture once, read many times’ objects that can and should be shared. A classic book in a public library may have been read a hundred times, but that doesn’t make being the hundredth borrower undesirable… on the contrary, its dog-eared pages and tawdry cover add value by evidencing previous reader’s enjoyment of the story therein. Self-awareness for reusing rather than buying, for sharing rather than consuming, is more a sign of our culture’s rampant consumerism than of the reuser’s miserliness or unwillingness to conform.

Consumerism is at once the engine of America and simultaneously one of the most revealing indicators of our collective shallowness — Henry Rollins

If his self-awareness was as a result of having to retrieve the used newspaper from a public recycle bin, it stands as condemnation of the tube station’s design as a public place in which commuters pass both en isolation and en masse. Down there in the tiled cavern we are alone in a sea of people doing the same thing at the same time. By design, there are no spaces, no affordances for connecting or sharing. As one, and yet in our individual cones of silence, we surge up the escalators and out the exit. Tube stations, airports and the foyers of twentieth century civic buildings exude the controlling isolation of modernism.

Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people — Theodor Adorno

It is not until we exit the station and join the hoi polloi at street level that we encounter the everyday messiness of reality in the form of undisciplined jay-walkers, beggars, buskers and street-life, the aroma of coffee and cigarette smoke amongst the random encounters that constitute the urban existence. Here, on the city streets, you feel free to go where you want, without fear of being watched or judged.  The crown brings anonymity. On the city streets, with its emergent structures and flows, I am less likely to notice a fellow taking a newspaper from a bin.  In fact it seems kind of normal.

Real relationship is gritty and earthy, the stuff that life is made of — Amy Grant

Perhaps there is a moral question lurking just below the surface… as children we are taught to share, not selfishly harbor our toys. But by the time we are adults we are fully nuclear. Every household in my street owns its own assemblage of occasional-use things — lawnmowers, hedge shears, wheelbarrows, tools, lathes, milling machines, and soon, 3D printers.  That we automatically assume the right to own these things, even to the point of questioning why some don’t, is evidence of creeping affleunza and social disconnectedness.  To not consume is to not buy in. To not consume in consumer society is to risk being other, a consumerist outcast.

Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism. Affluence has itself betrayed us. — Tim Jackson

Not consuming in the form of sharing, borrowing, reusing, re-purposing and generally making do with things that others discard is a sign of resourcefulness, creativity and perspicacity, and should be encouraged and rewarded. I’m on the lookout for people who do it and products and places that encourage it.

Life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t resourceful — Jeff Bezos

Postscript: Closely related to not-consuming is not-throwing-a-perfectly-good-thing-out-when-it-could-be-repaired. See The Repair Manifesto.


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