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A lifetime of leftovers

Normally I can identify scrap easily. Computer motherboards, check. A bale of old newspapers. Check. Our minds are good at sorting items into categories. But what about objects that carry meaning?

I am surrounded by boxes. Some marked fragile. Some marked heavy. My grandmother’s china set is peeping out from behind the cardboard, bubble wrap spilling over the edge. The delicate porcelain tells a story. A story of a young girl moving out, learning how to cook and raise a family.

In the recycling industry, we talk about legacy materials or products – such as flame retardants or cathode ray tubes. They remain when the world changes, challenging operators and sparking discussions. A leftover of our previous lives. The same could be said for all the stuff we’re faced with in a suddenly empty apartment.

Anyone who has ever lost anyone will recognise this: you don’t want to throw anything away. Everything is a memory. But you know you can’t keep everything. I don’t even have an attic.

And so the boxes, neatly stacked and labelled, have been divided among family members. My aunt got my grandmother’s vintage records, my mother her wardrobe and thimble collection (remember those?), while I have adopted her kitchen appliances and television. Granted, it’s not the latest model with all the ‘smart’ options but it was hers and that’s good enough for me. I’m just glad I can give it a second life.

Isn’t that what all of us ultimately want; to have a sensible relationship with the (too) many gadgets in our life? To extend the life cycle and delay the recycling process for as long as possible? It’s no use throwing a decent flat screen monitor into the shredder.

I talked to US entrepreneur Robin Ingenthron of Fair Trade Recycling last week about this exact topic. He points out his recycling contacts in African countries repair whatever they can get their hands on. Nothing is deemed worthless or too far gone without at least a few tries to get it back up and running. That intense determination sees them succeed most of the time. What can’t be fixed is taken apart so that components can be used to fix other discarded electronics.

‘Geeks of colour’ is what Ingenthron calls them. Business-savvy youngsters with a college degree and a thirst for technology and innovation. ‘I hope that American and European visitors will come visit these bright African entrepreneurs and bring a broken laptop or mobile phone and see it repaired before their own eyes,’ he tells me.

The thing is, people are impatient and we don’t tend to have a deep connection to the objects in our lives. Rather, we are eager to replace what we have and throw away what we can’t use. Ingenthron recalls how his father instilled in him the idea of “a rich person’s broken things” –  and the value they may hold for others.

This concept rings true today. Perhaps more so, considering demand for smartphones (and next generation products like ear pods and smart speakers) continues to set new records. Once the novelty wears off or they start to glitch, they promptly leave our household.

Unless there is more to the story. My grandmother’s TV is now perched on the dresser in my bedroom. I was never one to favour owning more than one. As someone who spends long hours of the day facing a monitor, I try to limit my screen time as much as possible. Still, it’s a nice thought to think that once she was once watching her favourite shows on the same device. 

And, when the time comes, I’ll gladly see it be taken apart, fixed, and rehomed to a loving family, by the ‘geeks of colour’ in Ghana or elsewhere.

Still in the loop. Active in a different part of the world. That’s not a bad ending to the story, is it?

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