Waste not, want not

There is another trend afoot. OK, go ahead and smack yourself in the head. But this trend is a byproduct of reality. The reality, in this case, is that we are realizing that we cannot sustain a throw away mentality much longer.

The last time this came around was in the 60’s when the counter culture began to zero in on the inherent wastefulness of our obsession with convenience. The icon of this new awareness was the venerable Mason jar. You would see people walking around drinking their coffee out of Mason jars and that was their way of letting you know that they disapproved of your disposable Styrofoam coffee cup. It would seem that the Mason jar has once again taken its place as the embodiment of the rebellion against impermanence. A recent visit to my son who works for Apple confirmed this. At least half of the people drinking coffee in the cafeteria were drinking that coffee from mason jars.

OK, I can hear you. What the does this have to do with woodworking? Simply this: woodworking has been subject to some of the most egregious examples of the throw away mentality. I would be willing to bet that at least 90 percent of the work I have done over the last 40 years has ended up in the Dumpster as homes change hands and the new owners want to replace the existing with something else. The waste of resources this represents is appalling.

One of my favorite examples of convenience taking precedence over sustainability is insert tooling. The days when every maker had to know how to keep his tools sharp have all but disappeared. Now, when a blade gets dull, you just swap out the dull tips for new ones. And the old ones? Toss them in the trash. Makes perfect sense from a work flow point of view. But how long can we keep this up?



  • David, I think you are really touching on a subject I have certainly experienced over the last few years. I supply other shops with carved items and whilst dropping of the items at there shop, I make sure to ask for any off cuts they may have that they might be trowing away. You would be surprised by my rich hauls of premium quality material I get. It is a win win for the shop too, I show up later with cutting boards or a bowl made out of there waste wood and they are delighted. As a carving shop I can use material cabinet and door shops are wanting to get rid off but don’t really want to just burn it or trash it. Giving it to a carving shop is ideal for them too!
    A few years ago, I would have been ashamed to ask as it might be seen as a reflection of my business not doing well but with this new economic reality people understand and want to be smart about there waste.
    This affords me otherwise too expensive a material to prototype and give gifts to customers.
    Gabriel McKeagney

  • Mark Slafkes says:

    We will keep this up forever. The best we will probably be able to do is slow it down a bit primarily when it becomes more costly to throw things away than to recycle them. Sad but true.

  • Chuck Riccardo says:

    Maybe 90% of your work has ended up in the dumpster but not mine. I have built some beautiful cabinets, railings, doors, stairs, and trim that are still around today because they were never the ‘style’ of the day, but always a classic look and always out of the best wood for the job. You will have more work and your work will stay around longer if you are more selective with who you work for. AND – no one has ever asked me for a discount… but I have lost my share of bids.

  • A.J. Hamler says:

    I hate when people waste wood. What, do they think it grows on trees?


  • Robert Smith says:

    David, You’re absolutely right. The United States is way behind when it comes to recycling wood products. In Germany if you want to by new kitchen cabinets, the purchaser must get a certificate that the old ones have been recycled. No recycling – no new cabinets.

    There are probably plenty of readers who think this is government intrusion and that we have a constitutional right to waste natural resources. That only works when there is an abundant supply, which is fast disappearing. I would like to think that people 100 years from now will be able to make something for themselves and others out of hardwood. Under the present system, that won’t happen.


  • John Gresko says:

    Till it all comes tumbling down.

  • Alan Blough says:

    Dave, you are older than me but probably were educated in the public school system. I was too, but I did learn a few things. You should know better than to chide the woodworking community in particular for waste.
    Yes, waste is everywhere. That is why Lean thinking is gaining popularity. One sure way to get people interested in frugality is economic collapse. My grandparents lived during the Depression. Not much gets thrown away during hard times like that.
    Now, back to the education. Everytime I hear someone lament about trees being cut down and wood products being made(and eventually thrown out), I have to hold down a laugh. Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics states that matter can be neither created nor destroyed. A tree grows. It gets harvested. The tops are left for cover in the forest. Boles are de-barked and the bark is turned into mulch. Logs are sawn into lumber. Lumber is made into products. Scrap and sawdust can be burned to make heat and the end result is tree food. Then the cycle starts over. Trees will regrow. I live in an area that was clearcut at once. We have lumber trucks going up the road all the time. Kids are being taught the “Lorax” effect.
    Now about the tooling: we don’t loose metals or minerals when we dig them out of the ground. What we fail to do is complete the cycle. Steel, aluminum, silver gold…it can be recovered from the products we have already made. It’s easier and cheaper to pitch it…unless you realize that here is a new business opportunity.

  • Alan Blough says:

    Robert, you must not have read my post very closely. What makes you think that Germany has a good idea on the government thing? We’ve imported a lot of bad from Europe: bad music, bad haircuts, bad social ideas, bad government programs. You can harvest trees about every 25 years. Granted, it’s not old growth, but sustainable forest management works. Why do we think that IKEA particle board cabinets are a good idea? That just screams “Ditch me in five years”.
    I have read that in Europe, when you move, you take your cabinets with you. Besides, this is America and that is Europe. In the first place 100 years is a long time and in the second, 100 miles is a long ways.

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