Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Sustainability expertise common in Hawai'i, just ask the old-timers

Sustainability is the new watchword, the mantra for a generation with its eyes open.

But it's not new. It's old.

It may surprise some to know that there is a unique, large reservoir in the Islands of people with special knowledge and training in sustainability. Many of those people may not even know they have the information, but it's there.

They're the tens of thousands of folks aged, say, 50 and older, who lived in Hawai'i during the early to middle part of the last century—and particularly those who lived in outlying areas. That would include anywhere on the Neighbor Islands (Outer Islands in those days), and plantations and other rural areas of O'ahu.

It was a place and time when virtually everything was scanned for its potential secondary value before being thrown away. And even then, somethings would be simply set aside, in case you thought of a use for them later.

I was raised on an isolated pineapple plantation on west Molokai.

We didn't do so much recycling in the sense of converting materials back to raw materials for the construction of new things. Instead, we found new end uses for old things.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a commentary in The Honolulu Advertiser by Maui Land & Pine's chairman, David Cole.

“In an earlier era,” he wrote, “we purchased items in bulk and reused our jars, cans and rice sacks. Today, we import a nonstop parade of trash in the form of packaging for which there is no after-market on the island...”

In Cole's “earlier era,” we found new uses for all kinds of stuff..

Our families didn't throw away fabric, for instance.

Rice bags had value once the rice had all been steamed and loaded into kaukau tins. The fabric was resewn into surf shorts, and occasionally into shirts.

Those little cloth sacks that tobacco came in were tied around the mouths of faucets to catch bits of rust and debris from plantation waterlines.

Glass jars were used to store all kinds of stuff—wood screws in the shop, sugar in the kitchen (to keep out ants). Even when the lids had rusted away, the glass jar could still be used for jams and jellies and chutneys, with a poured-in wax cap.

An old soda bottle might become a chili pepper water container.

Many modern plastic items would age, go brittle and crack—becoming useless—while a glass container worked on and on.

Old coffee cans took the place of small plastic buckets today, and were also used in the shop to store drill bits, old nails, oily lawnmower parts and all the rest.

Smaller tin cans that once held peaches in syrup, baked and green beans and other food were used as small potting tins to start vegetables for the garden. Or to hold paint for small painting jobs. Or for storing kids' marbles.

Food waste fed pets and livestock, or went into a pit.

I remember one year being impressed by the trash pit—today it would be referred to as a compost pit—at a place where we used to go fishing. I was impressed because instead of a pit, it was a dense mat of melon vines. The melon seeds that had been thrown in were growing, fertilized by years of vegetable peelings, slop, bread crumbs, and, yes, a few rusty cans. This particular year, the trash pit yielded juicy melons.

Reusing things was the standard in those days.

Even our outdoor trash cans had previous uses. They were old 55-gallon fuel drums with the tops cut out.

My first bike was a used, fat-tired retread that my dad had painted green. It was indestructible, which was a good thing, because I was hard on it.

My first car had a 16-year-old body and 18-year-old engine—the result of taking the best parts of two cars that didn't work to make one that did.

Can we survive in a society in which we use less stuff? Of course. We already have, and actually, it wasn't that long ago.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

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