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Earth Day should be celebrated every day

A Manitoba Hutterite Colony takes on the challenge of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’

group of schoolchildren recycling

“I think I’ll be counting bags in my sleep tonight,” a seventh-grader chuckled. A group of us were on the floor in my classroom, around a mountain of plastic bags we were counting for the Bag Up Manitoba program. Since getting involved in this program some years ago, the most our school ever collected was more than 27,000 bags. No matter how tedious a task counting bags is, it always feels good knowing our school is contributing to a cleaner environment; and that this is just one of the ways we observe Earth Day every day.

The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970. At a conference in Seattle the previous September, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed taking one day a year to remind of the importance of keeping our planet clean, and invited everyone to participate. The idea took off like a field of winter wheat sprouting in spring. Today it is celebrated in 192 countries.

I learned the value of frugality not so much from words as through observation. My parents taught by example, showing us that thrift was as much a biblical principle as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Mom never threw out empty containers or anything else she thought might be reused. A plastic bleach jug, for example, would become a clothespin holder. After she cut a hole in its side and a slit at the bottom of the handle to serve as a hook, this receptacle slid along the wash line with ease.

park bench made from recycled plastic
A park bench made of plastic from recycled bags. photo: Linda Maendel

Mom served as colony nursery school teacher for many years, and among the sandbox toys there were always some repurposed items. The top half of a pop bottle became a fine funnel, and the bottom an ideal mould to make beautiful mud cakes. A detergent bottle cut off diagonally turned into a sandbox shovel.

Just inside the door of our home there’s always a crocheted rug crafted from the wool of unravelled sweaters. Part of the washroom décor we have a beautiful and practical rag rug created out of old Fortrel clothes. With patchwork hot pads and dishcloths knit from recycled yarn, the kitchen boasts old-country appeal. In the past, when sugar and flour came in cotton sacks, these were bleached and turned into dish towels, with colourfully embroidered designs added on one edge or in the corners.

Values continue

Although some of these recycled items have been retired along with the old-fashioned syrup-pail knitting “baskets,” the values they instilled are as durable as colony clothes.

“It’s not garbage when it can still be used,” rings in my ear whenever I want to throw out something that could be reused. That was Mom’s way of reminding us of the teaching in Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” This implies a sacred duty to take care of the Earth.

Although I grew up and saw individuals and families repurposing things, it’s a relatively new thing to recycle as a colony. This can be challenging when there is no program in place. However, the real challenge is getting some of our people to understand the importance of recycling. A Hutterite kitchen for example, ends up with a variety of recyclables, including plastic, tin and glass containers, cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Sadly, most of these things end up on the nuisance ground, when they could just as easily go to a recycling depot. If individuals and families see the value of recycling, why not embrace it as an entire community?

To ensure our students are aware of the importance of recycling, we incorporate special programs into our school schedules. For a few years now, an organization called Take Pride Winnipeg has offered its Bag Up Manitoba program to schools. During the month of October, each school that registers has their students collect plastic bags, wrappers, or bubble wrap from their homes, preventing them from going to landfill sites. At school, the items are counted and packaged into bigger bags. The bags are eventually shipped to an American company that builds decks, park benches, planters, and birdhouses out of recycled plastic. Programs such as this one cannot be successful without the support of our families and friends.

Through our school we’ve also incorporated a recycling program to gather recyclables from the colony homes. These include glass, plastic, juice and pop containers, cardboard boxes and paper. Through Recycle Everywhere, a Manitoba province-wide recycling program, we acquired free collection containers. Each Thursday morning our Grades 5 to 8 students collect the recyclables and bring them to our storage building for sorting. Every second Friday, Portage Recycling picks up these items and takes them to its depot where they’re packaged and shipped to various destinations for recycling.

With all this in place, however, there’s still more work to be done. I dream of the day when recycling will be a mainstay in all our communal buildings. Our kitchen, barns and shops all have many items that could be recycled.

Out of necessity Hutterites and others lived frugally centuries ago. Some kept it up and passed it on to their children; sadly, others did not. Learning new ways to utilize old things is imperative in today’s world. With materials more readily available nowadays, people tend to thoughtlessly throw out and replace things, rather than reusing or recycling them. As stewards of the earth, we’re obligated to celebrate Earth Day every day!

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