Reuse is Better (& More Satisfying) than Recycling

By Michael Caduto

Children who attend my performances have taught me that a good story is worth retelling. Among the traditions of the Ainu—one of the ancient indigenous cultures of Japan—is a tale about what can happen if we throw useful things away. 

A young boy becomes gravely ill because his father has discarded an axe that had been in their family for generations. When the boy’s grandfather had died, his father, in his grief, had thrown the axe under their house, where it’s handle decayed and the metal blade became rusty and dull. 

In the delirium of fever, the boy discovers that his playtime companions (whom only he can see) are really his mother’s tea tray and pestle. They tell the boy that their Chieftain, who is in reality the family’s rusty axe, has made the boy sick because his father threw the axe away.

“How can I be healed?” asks the boy.

“Your father must sharpen and polish the axe blade. He must make a new handle of wood and carve it with the divine symbols of honor. If he does these things, you will be made well, and our Chieftain will visit you.”

When the boy tells his father what his friends have demanded, the father runs outdoors and retrieves the axe from under the house. Working quickly, he remakes the axe and handle, just as the Chieftain demanded. As soon as the father hammers the axe head onto its new handle, the boy is instantly healed. The boy’s friends and their Chieftain then come to visit, teaching the boy how to heal the sick. In time, the boy became a renowned healer.

Ultimately, sustainability is built on a sense of connection. It is fascinating to consider how the things we often use, without giving them a second thought, could actually have lives of their own, and that there are serious repercussions for wasting things that still have some use left in them. 

Everyone has heard stories about how earlier generations saved things that we now routinely discard. When I was growing up, my paternal grandmother baked gloriously elaborate trays of Italian cookies for the weddings of friends and family. We would often spend days helping to prepare and decorate those delicacies. In the kitchen drawer where she kept many of her baking supplies, was a large ball of string that consisted of hundreds of short pieces tied together. In those days, meats and cheeses from the local delicatessens were wrapped in “butcher’s paper” and bound with cotton string. Suspended above each store counter was an enormous spool of string in a cage-like dispenser from which the wrapping string unspooled. Over time, my grandparents had saved the individual pieces of packaging string and tied the ends together to create their own giant ball of string. I don’t think they ever bought a roll of string in their lives.

Their Victorian house, on the west side of Providence, was adorned with furnishings, plates and silverware that were largely wedding gifts from the early 1900s. Those heirlooms were used with loving care and old things were cherished as tangible threads that traced a lineage back through the generations. The older something became, the more value it seemed to accrue. I inherited my grandmother’s china, her living room sideboard and even the giant steamer trunk in which she packed her hand-made embroideries and worldly belongings on the long trip from Italy to the United States when she was only eighteen. 

How did we lose sight of the connections that exist between the things that we use throughout our lives, and the life force with which they become imbued over time? The very essence of how we cherished things that spoke to our sense of place and ties to friends and family members, is exactly the way of being that we now seek in striving to grow connections with family and community, and a sustainable relationship with the world around us.

If there is a modern-day analogy to the connection between the Chieftain and the axe in this Ainu cautionary tale, it is the sad story of the lives of those things that we often use and throw away, in abasement to our worship of all things new. From disposable plastics and packaging, to the quest for the latest fashion or tech gadget, the things that we now employ have a short shelf life and often end up in the trash. Landfills are our monuments to future generations. 

The way in which we now generate such obscene volumes of waste, and the way that we handle it, is more than simply a testimonial to an unsustainable economic system of production and single-use habits—it is a symptom of the deeper crisis of values and behaviors that support this system.

What can we do? We can use only what is needed, choose and value things made out of wood and other long-lasting natural materials that will endure through time, reuse things made out of plastic, metal and glass for other purposes and recycle the disposable materials that are still hard to avoid in today’s marketplace. Instead of always buying “new,” we can seek out places that offer an array of used goods that still have use left in them. And we can cherish those things that are handed down from our ancestors as the vessels of love and inherited wisdom that, not surprisingly, still offer much in the way of practical use.

A sweet breakfast served on the W.S. George Radisson china that the writer inherited from his grandmother. Photo: Michael J. Caduto


Instead of always buying “new,” seek out places that offer an array of quality second-hand goods that have plenty of use left in them. Local and regional resale outlets include: Encore Designer Consignment and Who Is Sylvia? in Woodstock, the Listen Thrift Store and Revolution in White River Junction, and the Bridgewater Thrift Store. In these outlets one can often purchase high-quality second-hand goods and antiques that are much less expensive, and will last far longer than new, mass-produced items.


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