Refusing plastic straws and carrying a reusable water bottle is good for the environment. But to reduce unnecessary consumption and waste, strong communities working together is also critical.
Last month, blankets, linens and ceramics found their way into homes instead of landfills thanks to networks that connect people in need to people with resources. A group of dedicated volunteers used these communities with the primary desire to reduce waste. But through the process, they also honored a neighbor they barely knew.
Bill Kesl and his partner moved into a beautiful red Victorian on Bush Street in 1985. Two years later, AIDS claimed his partner’s life. By 2018 the home was in significant disrepair. The red paint was pealing, the roof was leaking and the walls and floors were crumbing. Many in the neighborhood wondered about the reclusive person inside the decaying old house.
Kesl’s neighbor, Judy Schultz, helped with his garden and spoke with him occasionally. But she only learned of Kesl’s sudden and fatal heart attack when his cousin, Linda Kesl, came to San Francisco to see the house.
“She was up against a lot,” Schultz told me. “Bill had so many things. There were well over 100 moving boxes filled with linens; and I mean well over. From floor to ceiling in the garage there were boxes of ceramics and other items.”
According to Linda, Kesl dreamed of owning an antique store. For decades, he had gathered and carefully stored collectibles he hoped to one day sell. While Linda and Kesl had frequently gone antiquing together, she had no idea he had collected so much. Finding the moldy, wet rooms packed with boxes was overwhelming for Linda, who lives in Utah.
Linda considered hiring a junk company to clear the house. That’s when Schultz and a few other neighbors offered to help. Their goal: to give Kesl’s belongings to people who would appreciate them. Wearing masks and equipped with a military-grade flashlight, the neighbors spent hours a day unwrapping goods from newspapers that sometimes dated back to the 1970s and 80s.
“I would plan to just go over for one hour to do one thing,” Mike Emard, one of the neighbors, told me. “Then I would get sucked in. We spent most of December and a little bit of January working.”
They drove numerous carloads of belongings to a Santa Rosa church that helps victims of the 2017 Wine County fires and other people in need. Old clothes found their way to a local Goodwill. A San Francisco teacher picked up hundreds of cedar boxes for his students to use.
Jenny Fan, who lived across the street from Kesl, posted pictures of his belongings on Craigslist and the Facebook “Buy Nothing (SF Families)” page, which helps San Francisco members give, share and borrow items for free. Arranging for people to pick up old chairs, boxes of ceramics and plastic hangers took time and sometimes people didn’t show. But it was worth it, according to Fan.
“Doing good things is its own reward,” she told me. “And, in the end, the good easily outweighed the bad. I got to help keep stuff out of the landfill, I got to know my neighbors better and I got to learn about Bill.”
Kesl’s belongings offered clues about his life and personality. His neighbors loved finding a silly Mardis Gras-style hat in a box of pillows and knew he would have worn it proudly. They admired his impeccable taste in antiques, linens and pottery. They felt a closeness to a man who had existed on the periphery of the lives.
“I took some of Bill’s glass decanters and at Christmas I made a display,” Lisa Ward, who lived next door to Kesl for ten years, told me. “It was my way of honoring his memory.”
In the end, Kesl’s neighbors estimate that they moved and distributed more than 10,000 pounds of his belongings. Their work helped people get warm, wool blankets during the winter and necessary goods for their home. They honored the treasurers Kesl had dreamed of selling. They kept waste out of the landfill. This is environmentalism – a community with a healthy appreciation of the people and things within it.
A recycling question from a reader
What do I do with wrappers? If they are clear or at least white plastic, I am hoping that they are actually recyclable in our regular recycling bin. If they are mylar material, can I send them to TerraCycle for recycling? – Nadine
This is a great, and difficult, question to answer. Plastic wrappers are made with low-grade, petroleum-based materials. When you add glue to seal the bag and ink for the label, it makes it even harder, if not impossible, to find a market for the low-grade plastic. The same is true for Mylar, a metallic, synthetic film that coats bite-size candy wrappers and granola bars.
TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company, does process hard-to-recycle items, like Clif Bar wrappers and chip bags. San Franciscans can also put soft plastics into the blue bin, such as bubble wrap, toilet paper wrappers and bread bags. They must be bundled together in a tied plastic bag first.
But, remember, the market for low-grade plastic is extremely limited. Our ice cream bar wrappers and nut bags can end up in small communities in Southeast Asia that lack resources to handle the influx. Eventually, these items can wind up in foreign landfills, the ocean or be openly incinerated.
You can try sending Mylar to TerraCycle and bundling plastic wrappers together and placing them in the blue bin. But the better approach is using reusable containers to buy nuts and snacks in bulk. Rainbow Grocery has fantastic options. Refusing unnecessary items and reusing are always better for the environment than recycling.
Hope that helps! Ask me more sorting questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com