Words by Megan Thrall, Pictures by Brent Calver
With Canada’s recycling system in crisis, landfills closing one after another for reaching capacity, and the oceans churning out islands of plastic debris, the planet is at a crossroads: pinned between a society engulfed in the need to buy more and replace often, and the environment.
While buying more consciously and supporting sustainable brands has taken the forefront of discussion, many are instead calling for a change in our habits after we already own something.
That is the case for Todd Martin and his nine-year-old son, Finn, who you might just see rummaging through the landfill. They’re not dumpster diving, they’re looking for bikes.
“It started off as just one bike, giving it to somebody else to make sure we didn’t throw it out, it was too good to throw out, to the point now where we can take bikes that are maybe destined for the landfill, bring some new life into them and find them new homes,” said Martin of how ReCycle Okotoks began.
The pair started ReCycle Okotoks as a hobby.
The wheels started turning for the project two years ago when Finn outgrew his bike. Instead of getting rid of it, they donated it to a neighbour who didn’t have one, which then rolled into them discovering there was a “deficit of bikes” on their street.
Then they went to the Foothills Salvage and Recycling Society at the Regional Landfill.
“That’s where we saw all these really good bikes just thrown for people to take, and me and my dad thought it was pretty sad that people had thrown away these bikes that were pretty expensive in their times, and just gone,” said Finn.
The Salvage Centre plays an important role in the community’s ability to repurpose items, and has supported ReCycle’s goals by setting up a bike rack for the Martins and others to find bikes that were destined for the landfill.
The centre provides a warehouse of salvaged goods available for discounted prices, recognizing the need for salvaging items is a critical part of the environment’s future. Donating significant proceeds and items to non-profits every year, the centre plays a large part in the local salvage society.
Between trips to the Salvage Centre and garage sales, the father-son duo began fixing up the bikes and finding homes for them within their network of neighbours and Finn’s friends.
“Last year was really the turning point where we were going up to the Salvage Centre probably every week and bringing home about three or four or five bikes, and by June we had 50 bikes in our basement,” said Martin. “I started fixing them, so I had about 30 to 40 bikes repaired, looking for homes and all the homes that we had in our network had been filled, so we had nowhere else for them to go. So a friend recommended (starting a Facebook page) to try to distribute them in town.”
Since starting their page in September of last year, they have placed 80 bikes, with another 15 repaired and waiting for homes and 35 waiting for repair.
Their reach is expanding, too. They have sent bikes to Calgary, Edmonton, and even to B.C.
Rather than accepting money, Martin encourages those who wish to pay to go instead to one of the local bike shops and buy some of the bike parts they tend to go through quickly, such as chains and handle grips. In this way, the local economy is supported while still going to the bikes.
When asked about the importance of recycling our belongings, Martin backed it up to the concept of ‘repair.’
“Recycling, to me, is the downstream, final thing you should do in the stream of consumption. Yeah, things are recyclable, we have that option, but repairing is another step in avoiding landfills, or avoiding putting things into where they need to be broken down and put into something else, recycled,” he said.
“It’s either upcycling them or repairing them. If I could take recycling and put it at the 5,000 level, keeping things out of the landfill, that’s the end. That’s where things go to rot, and sometimes they don’t rot or break down.”
The Martins have also begun working with Westmount School, where Finn attends, to teach students about bikes and repairing them as part of the Simple Machines curriculum for Grade 4 students.
“It’s also really exciting being down at the school to see how excited the kids were to be reworking the bike and fixing it up and learning about the value of it, and that they’re value of the time they put in to fix it up too, that was exciting,” said Sharon, Martin’s wife. “Our society is all about buy: consume, consume, consume. And when you can give the kids an opportunity that they can go ‘no, we don’t need to buy new, this is a really great bike and I get to put my spin on it’ and they get it, at a really young age.”
With Finn’s involvement in the project and their work at the school, teaching children about repairing is a cornerstone of the Martins' vision, and it all comes down to succession.
“Imparting lessons is part of parenting, trying to instil values and learn from things that maybe we could have done differently years ago,” said Martin. “It’s just more of setting them on a trajectory of environmental stewardship, for economic responsibility, and beyond just recycling the act of taking something broken, repairing it, and handing it to someone who could use it. I’m not going to say charity, it’s community. It’s that sense of the community.
“When you look at the whole cycle of materials from the time you build something to what you can fix, what you can’t fix, and how to responsibly negotiate through that, it’s not just consume and dispose, consume and dispose.”
The Martins also donate their time to the local repair cafés, offering tune-ups and demonstrations on how to fix bikes.
“As far as raising awareness and encouraging people to consider bringing something for repair as opposed to just ditching it is a huge first step at the grassroots level,” said Martin. “(The Repair Café) does need to expand because the skillsets in this town I’m sure are exponential.
“This is another avenue on the path to recycling, where that’s actually the foundation of what we’re doing: repair.”
At a recent Sustainability Fair and Repair Café in Black Diamond, the evidence of future generations getting in on the lesson was in full force as several tables sported students showing off their skills and insight into the issue.
For Dusty Williams, chair of the Sustainable Black Diamond Advisory Committee and one of the organizers of the Sustainability Fair, having the students there has been a goal for years.
“We’ve been trying to get them involved for a number of years,” he said. “You know, how do we succession plan? And the way to do that is have the youth on the sustainability committee, or here at an event like this, they love it.
“To have them here is just great and the succession planning because we’re not young anymore. They have an opportunity over time to learn and it gets them thinking this way.”
Williams stressed the importance of not hiding the situation from children, and advocates instead making them part of the solution. The importance of addressing the impact of our waste is critical for him.
“Other than the obvious we can’t do this anymore, it’s taking far too long to get the message across,” he said. “We need to learn as a community how to repair things, how to create products for ourselves. For instance we can take glass out of the recycle centre and process it and use it in construction, we can take paper that has no value and is a cost, and remould that into shapes the same as Styrofoam, so now you don’t have a product out there that’s off-gassing styrene, benzene, and all those other things that people don’t know how bad it is.”
His solution? Simple: keep it local.
“Local, local, local. We develop the local business, we develop the product, and that in the final result is a community that’s malleable, adaptable, sustainable, and can support themselves,” he said. “Everything is done within the community: clothing, repaired appliances, there’s so many things.
“Everything on this planet is interconnected, it’s hard to do any thing else, it’s just the way thermodynamics works. Everything is connected, so make it work for you. Just change it, alter it.”
One table at the fair held a number of art projects by the students of Oilfields High School, all using disposable Tim Hortons cups found in the OHS garbage cans as the focus.
Manned by Nicholas Peters, 13, and Ivy Gregoire, 12, the two spoke of how they found 50 per cent of garbage at the school was disposable coffee cups and how the school wanted to focus on how the cups could be reused and repurposed.
Some of the projects were of houses made from cups, and tree stumps with the cups entwined. Peters' project was a graveyard of cups and a headstone reading “R.I.P. Humans”, while Gregoire’s was a coffee cup eating the earth.
As bleak and foreboding as the projects were, the future didn’t seem nearly so bad talking to the students.
“Yeah, so [the projects are] kind of symbolizing human error and what it will do to us eventually. So this, it’s like garbage is going to destroy the world and it’s going to get to the point where it’s irreversible in a few years,” said Peters.
Contributing to the irreversible pile of garbage is initiatives like Roll Up the Rim, said Gregoire, which always has you “play again to win.” This business model encourages use of disposable cups that most recycling facilities cannot recycle.
“I’ve only ever won one coffee in the entire month that it goes on, so it’s a waste of ink to print on the cups, and a waste of paper,” said Peters.
Even worse was the incentive to play the game without wanting the product, according to Gregoire.
“Especially since a lot of people just buy the coffee to play Roll up the Rim, and then not even drink the coffee,” she said.
The students were sporting reusable coffee cups themselves, and urge people to switch to those and make their coffees at home, or cash in on the discounts offered at most chains for bringing your own cup.
Beyond their smart-consumerism agenda, they are challenging society to find ways of making our products useful after the fact, too.
As part of the Skills Alberta project, Peters and his group at OHS created a steam-powered generator to recycle the typically not-recyclable disposable coffee cups.
“Basically, it burned down the coffee cups and in exchange gave us electricity and hot water, and filtered the fumes at the same time,” said Peters.
As incredible as the generator was, Peters is well aware of the limits. While efficient, the generator is far too large for practical application, and “would have to be a castle-sized building to actually work” for a town or city.
But that doesn’t mean the students are discouraged or throwing in the towel—as history has shown us, making previously large and cumbersome machines smaller and more efficient is something humans excel at.
For many of the people at the repair cafés and sustainability fairs, the sense of community of like-minded people is what keeps them coming back, and what they hope will bring more people into the fold.
“We’re kind of just expanding that web of who’s who in the zoo of people that have these skillsets to fix things,” said Martin.
While Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are the traditional three R’s that have been taught for generations, for the people living in the salvage society, Repair, Reuse, and Repurpose better describes the future they look forward to.