My Mom, the Recycler

By Carol Joseph

My mother invented recycling.

Okay, maybe she didn’t actually invent recycling, but she was reusing newspapers, glass jars and coffee grounds long before it became the politically correct or environmentally conscious thing to do. Sure, she cared about the environment – as much as anyone cared back in the ’60s and ’70s. But it wasn’t the trees, the oceans and the planet she was trying to save: it was money. With three kids to raise on one very middle-class income, my mom became frugal to a fault. She could stretch a dollar so far, it would practically snap and go flying across the room like a tightly pulled rubber band, which no doubt had been recycled from that day’s newspaper.

Nothing went to waste in our house.

Old tablecloths were cut into dishtowels. Old dishtowels were cut into rags. And old rags? They were sent to the garage where my dad could surely find some use for them.

Stain on my shirtsleeve? No problem. Mom would whip out her scissors and sewing machine and in no time at all I had a new sleeveless blouse that matched the shorts she just cut down from the long pants I outgrew.

Most people stopped collecting aluminum foil after World War II ended. Not my mother. Each night, after dinner, any foil that had been used was washed, dried and neatly folded so it could be used again and again until it literally fell apart. The same went for disposable plastic sandwich bags. As far as my mom was concerned, it was crazy to use them only once. Not when you could wash them, turn them inside out to dry, and use them a second or even third time.

In my house, even food was recycled. Leftover pork chops and stray pieces of chicken never saw the inside of our garbage disposal. Instead, they went into the spaghetti sauce, along with that extra piece of spare rib my brothers didn’t eat. When the white bread got stale, she threw it in the blender and made breadcrumbs.

My mom could and did recycle just about anything, but her specialty was paper products. Return envelopes from unwanted solicitors became score sheets for my parents’ card games. The backs of bank deposit slips became grocery lists and any 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper that wasn’t printed on both sides was systematically folded into thirds, cut into pieces and bound with a rubber band, thereby eliminating the need to ever buy notepads for anything, including letters to my teacher.

I never thought too much about my mom’s recycling habits. I just assumed everyone was like her – until I met my husband, Mr. Just-Throw-It-All-Away.

When something was broken or outdated, my husband simply threw it away, without trying to repair or reuse it. He discarded towels before they were worn out and went through plastic sandwich bags like they were going out of style. No washing and reusing for this guy. Not when there was a trashcan nearby.

Once the shock of his decadent lifestyle wore off, I tried to adapt his cavalier attitude toward discarding things. And I had some moderate success. I found it liberating to throw away rubber bands from broccoli bundles and twist ties from bread wrappers. And to discard old Cool Whip containers, no matter how perfect they were for holding leftovers. But more often than not, I found myself retrieving things from the trash that my husband had thrown away simply because he didn’t want them anymore. It once took me half a day to convince him that an old 8-track player was still in perfectly good condition.

For me, the compulsion to reuse things wasn’t as much a matter of economics as it was genetics, learned practicality and a soft heart. I didn’t necessarily want the things he had thrown away; I just couldn’t stand to see anything in remotely useable condition go to waste. Not when the Salvation Army Store was just around the corner. Or when we had a basement large enough to store things for some undetermined “future use.”

Eventually, with enough time and distance between us and a comfortable income level, I outgrew most of my mother’s recycling habits. Sure, I did all the usual sorting and recycling that was now commonplace and expected, but I no longer snuck my husband’s old socks out of the trash and turned them into dog toys. I bought cute magnetic note pads for my grocery lists and even let my kids doodle on colorful Post it Notes instead of the backs of my outdated, but beautifully printed resumes. I was completely cured. Or so I thought.

Last year, when my husband lost his job, I went back to my roots.

I stopped throwing good food away just because we didn’t feel like eating it and started creating recipes that utilized that leftover piece of chicken and the too-small-to-grate piece of cheese. Barely-used plastic freezer bags suddenly warranted a quick rinse and a second use. And those boxes of old business cards from the high-paying jobs my husband and I used to have? Turned out they were perfect for jotting down phone numbers, short messages and the few items I needed from the grocery store.

I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of frugality – I mean recycling – that my mother achieved. After all, she practically invented it. But it’s reassuring to know that when times get tough, I can recycle with the best of them.

About this writer

  • Carol Joseph Carol Joseph is a freelance writer who lives in Naples, Florida, with her husband and two children. Last year, she gave her mother post-it notes and pretty note pads for her birthday. She has yet to use them.

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One Response to “My Mom, the Recycler”

  1. Linda says:

    and brown paper lunch bags were neatly folded and returned home to be reused for at least a week….. Aaaahhh the memories and lessons we need to pass on to our kids!

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