Letter To The Editor: Making Discarded Items New Again

Los Alamos

Reference 1: The New Yorker, June 13, 2022 edition. (Note: The cover of the New Yorker shows a smiling family receiving a large “new” boxed item which is being unloaded from a delivery truck by workmen. Simultaneously, a couch-sized box and a smaller box of trash are being loaded into a garbage truck by workmen.)

Reference 2: Movie made in 1940 (video): “Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.” (Note: the video discusses Paul Ehrlich, physician and scientist, who helped to fight a diphtheria epidemic, won a Nobel Prize for “The Side Chain Theory,” and developed No. 606 – a treatment for syphilis. No. 606 came after years of research and 605 failures.)   

Humans only live on planet earth for a short time – perhaps 70 to 90 years. It is a “duty of care,” (a legal term) that we leave a world behind which is as good as or better than we found it.  A step toward this goal is to make discarded items new again (first reference).

To make an item new again (for example, a consumer item), any of the following might be required: cleaning; repair; disassembly /sorting/recovery of valuable materials such as copper or brass; and/or packaging (locating an original box or substitute box/instruction sheet/part list). 

Chemicals and formulations (for example, pesticides and herbicides) are particularly troublesome.  Unidentified solids/liquids pose a disposal hazard.  A clear liquid in an unmarked glass jar could be salt water or sulfuric acid. It is important to store chemicals in original containers with information on the chemical contents. If a container with no label holds crankcase oil, anti-freeze and automotive parts, someone eventually has to sort out the various constituents, transfer each item to a separate container, and route the containers for disposal, recycling, and/or reuse. 

Many years ago, I worked on getting a septic tank pumped out. I asked the attendant what happened to the collected sewage. He told me that, “We run it through the plant to separate out and purify useful materials like fat.”  Then I asked, “What happens to the fat?” He told me that the fat is sold to companies which manufacture cosmetics.

There are many other similar stories (for example, snake venom may be used to produce antidotes for snake bites or a variety of miracle drugs.)

Many years ago, I worked as a summer student in Houston. I heard a story about how some purple dye was released in wastewater from one of the local chemical plants. The water had a very faint purple tinge to it even though the dye was present in the 3 part-per-million (ppm) range. The presence of the dye caused an outcry by the Public and the discharge of the wastewater containing the purple dye was discontinued. In the end, the dye manufacturing operation was transferred to Germany.

When this kind of technology transfer occurs, the ability to create new dyes, new miracle drugs, and other specialty organic chemicals by American chemical and pharmaceutical companies is lost – perhaps forever. It is worth mentioning that one of the first chemicals produced by the American chemical industry in the 1800’s was a purple dye. Keep in mind that chlorine, a poisonous gas, is used to disinfect water.  Also bear in mind that air containing 5 ppm oxygen is lethal.

Some time ago, I acquired an old video which was discarded by the Los Alamos High School (second reference). It is one of the most informative and delightful videos which I own. I just watched it again today.

Some homeowners have an obsession with cleanliness, and they purchase a variety of cleaning products. Some cleaning products contain chemical constituents which are harmful to people, pets, and the environment. The cleaning products may be discarded in the original containers, or the constituents may find their way into the environment in wastewater. Tap water which has been disinfected with chorine is a very good cleaning agent all by itself.  A little elbow grease might be required, but water is inexpensive and relatively safe (that is, when kept away from electrical systems).

Many items which are cleaned, disassembled/sorted, and packaged are of interest in the used item marketplace or serve as a starting point for a reuse project. This can help to save money, encourage homeowners to find creative uses for discarded items/materials, and reduce the burden to the environment. Reuse of items/materials does not require transporting recycled material to distant reprocessing facilities by trucks/trailers which generate carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and/or particulate pollution.

Historically, I have learned how to repair discarded items. Sometimes it is only a five-cent part which fails in a multi-hundred-dollar product. It is interesting how many consumer items may be repaired with super glue and a carefully cut / shaped strip of metal from a tin can lid (that is, reinforcing material). It takes some time, effort, and imagination to learn and how to reuse discarded materials, but it is quite rewarding and opens the door to untold amounts of education/opportunities.

In closing, I like to think about steam locomotives which have been restored to operating condition by the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Most steam locomotives stopped being used in the 1950’s. Now a few of them are back in service for our enjoyment.

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, pick it up. If you can’t pick it up, paint it.” is an old Army saying born in the mist of a time which has changed meaning over time.


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