Retooling: the hard part of going green

My favorite new tools & the age-old problem of hazardous waste

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Until the COVID-19 lockdown, I hadn’t really understood how much easier it is to be a handywoman if you have good tools. I knew about good tools in the kitchen, and the garden, but around the house I made do with whatever I could find in the basement.

This changed last spring, along with so much else. My next-door neighbor, a contractor, loaned me his electric screwdriver/drill. It was magic. I borrowed it again. And again. Finally I checked reviews (I love Wirecutter.com) and bought my own, one that a professional could use. (I chose the Dewalt Xrtreme 12V max Cordless Drill / Driver Kit - what a name!) I also organized and repainted the ancient workbench in the basement, so I would know where to find screws and nails and wall-plugs.

This was life-changing. Suddenly, the little fixes that make life pleasant and convenient - like moving a smoke detector, putting up a shelf, and mounting a power-strip - were no big deal.

This kind of tooling, or retooling, is part of living more sustainably because one can so easily repair and reuse things, instead of discarding them. Not that I want to have every tool or piece of equipment. I’m also a proponent of sharing - after all, there are plenty of tools we need only occasionally. There’s a long, long ladder in my barn that goes out to neighbors regularly. But having the right tool available, immediately at hand, removes a lot of the mental friction I used to feel about tackling a domestic fix.

This is only a beginning, of course. I’m putting together tool lists for different locations: city apartment/old house/etc. It would be great to have your suggestions.

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Speaking of tools, another new favorite is a $6 battery tester. More on that below.

You can see from the photo at the top of this letter that another small electric tool, a floating de-icer, is a favorite of one of the frogs. The de-icer is designed to keep a hole open, for oxygen, while the frogs are deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond. I spotted this little creature sitting outside on a day when the air outside was 26F (-3C).

Getting rid of toxics at home

One of the frustrations faced by any home ecologist is what the heck to do with hazardous waste. You hear a lot about paper and plastic and glass, but the really challenging thing for individuals is the little stuff that needs special treatment because it contains toxic chemicals or heavy metals. We’ve been reducing toxics in many products - household paint and newsprint ink spring to mind as products that are now much less polluting than they were 20 years ago - but our electronic devices pose a growing waste problem.

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The situation is even more challenging now because of COVID-19 lockdowns, both in the small town where I’ve spent the last year and in New York City. I’m not sure why waste centers would be closed, but in New York I’ve seen notices that say, “Due to COVID-19, SAFE Disposal Events are canceled through June 30, 2021.”

In Great Barrington, a small town in Massachusetts, hazardous waste is a frequent topic on our neighborhood listserv. Under normal circumstances, the town’s only offering is a single annual waste drop-off day. I want to get rid of things quickly so I did some research and learned that fluorescent bulbs, thermometers, and other things containing mercury (which is especially toxic) should go to a state collection point. These are, at least under non-pandemic conditions, conveniently located in each town, at Egremont Town Hall, for example, Sheffield Transfer Station, and our own Carr Brothers on Main Street. That was the good news.

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Then I learned that rechargeable batteries can be recycled at Staples, an office-supply chain, but they “cannot accept single-use alkaline or lithium batteries or automotive/wet-cell batteries at this time.” This doesn’t make sense: why would you want to recycle your rechargeables? You’d be recharging them, of course! (By the way, a cheap little battery tester is game changer: this tool makes it easy to manage a box of rechargeable batteries, and to decide when to discard an alkaline battery. Photo below.)

I’ve almost entirely converted to rechargeables, but have been finding old equipment with worn-out alkaline batteries and have nowhere to take them. I then found that there are recycling boxes for alkaline and cell-phone batteries. These can be shipped back for recycling after they are full. The $65 box holds 40-50 pounds of batteries so it would be a reasonably economical way to recycle. Perhaps my neighbors will pitch in together and do this.

What I’m writing here is totally American, I know, and I’d love to hear about practices in other countries.

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Super Bowl commercials are a big deal in the US. Here’s one about batteries that’s making the rounds early.

More on forgetfulness

Last week I was puzzling over how people could forget a pandemic when it’s over. Turns out that a journalist at the Guardian was thinking about the same thing that day. Here’s his article. And Peter Morris in London, who sent some very interesting comments, also forwarded this article from The Times on “The Great Death” about a study done after the 1981 flu pandemic, which also considered forgetfulness. I found the conclusion intriguing - and rather different from what we’ll see after the COVID-19 pandemic:

The compilers evidently lean to the view that exceptional conditions, mental, physical, or both, were created by the general upheaval of war and that these broke down human resistance to the attacking germ. An alternative view, that the germ acquired a new degree of virulence, must be set against this. Neither is by any means satisfactory; all that can be said of them is that they are the best within our knowledge. The mystery remains a mystery, and a vast field for research is presented to the scientific mind.

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My mother has had her first vaccine dose and is already thinking about where in the world she wants to go. That’s uplifting news! Do take care of yourself and send along any suggestions or tips.

This is what the pond looks like now, after the Nor’easter. But the de-icer is still keeping a patch clear. No sign of the frog though.

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PS: I’ve been writing this letter while listening to several Zoom presentations about China, foreign policy, and the future of democracy, so I imagine that’s what you’ll be hearing about next week.