Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.
Whether one attends church every week, once a year or not at all, Christmas is to a large extent a children’s holiday. It’s all about Christmas morning and “the look on a child’s face” when unwrapping gifts wrapped in ribbons and bows. Many of us have memories of this from both the sides – as youngsters and parents. It’s wonderful.
But the moment is fleeting, and many of the toys end up discarded or broken within a matter of weeks if not days. Ironically, a small plastic toy that brings a brief moment of joy could subsequently spend the rest of eternity in a landfill. Talk about heaven and hell!
In this season of pausing to reflect, lets pause and reflect on this extraordinary moment in history we occupy. Something that we buy on a whim at the dollar shop can persist within a buried pile of rubbish for hundreds of generations to come. Compare this to the first Maori and European residents of these islands. Few artifacts persist from each group compared to what landfill archeologists will be finding from us for centuries to come.
Of course there is nothing wrong with the desire to make a child happy, but I would argue that Christmas – or any holiday involving gift giving – is less about the ‘things’ and more about the ‘moments.’ The shiny plastic things that go “beep, bop, bang” are just one pathway to the moments we treasure. There are other pathways.
If the end goal is magical moments, then the design challenge is this: How do we create magical moments for our children without also creating a pile of rubbish?
Like any good design, this one should be holistic, adaptive and cooperative. It should also dare to think outside of the square. For example, when thinking of ‘things’ to give a child, one consideration is not a ‘thing’ at all, but rather the gift of time. Does that sound cliché?
Whether it’s cliché or not, mountains of research show that what most children want is more time with their parents. Along the same lines, there are two mountains of research showing that reading to children under the age of three is about the best thing parents can ever do. On top of that, it’s free. How’s that for eco-thrifty?
Other gifts-of-time we can give children include a special day at the beach, a trip to the movies, a boat ride, a treasure hunt, a mystery adventure, or a Neil Diamond greatest hits dance party.
Fair enough, but at the end of the day most parents still want to give their kids ‘stuff.’ But even from this perspective we can design much more sustainable solutions than the current one-way trip to landfill.
In the field of materials cycling, the global leaders are chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The pair has been working on what they call cradle-to-cradle design for two decades. Put simply, cradle-to-cradle sets the stage for infinite materials recycling with no such thing as landfill. In fact, the motto of this design methodology is “waste equals food” – in other words, the remnants or leftovers of one process are used to feed another process. This is accomplished by creating two materials metabolisms: biological and industrial.
The biological metabolism can be explained in three words: let it rot. Nature has been doing it for millions of years. Any materials that come from living organisms can be returned to the soil to promote the growth of more living organisms.
An industrial metabolism involves all materials that do not come directly from plants and animals, which include metals, minerals, plastics and other synthetic materials. The challenge is to make the recovery and remanufacture processes easy and efficient to ensure 100% recycling so that a broken plastic toy would readily be turned into a new plastic toy – over and over. From this perspective, gift giving could be guilt-free forevermore.
But until that day, another strategy for low-impact holiday giving is to choose durable gifts that will last. Our household does lots of wooden toys, and my parents still have 40+ year-old wooden toys that they get out when the grandchildren visit.
For Verti’s birthday in August I used driftwood to build a fairy village for indoor play and a swing set outside. The totara, matai and rimu timbers are incredibly durable and will last for decades. If I’m still alive when it falls apart, I will remove the treaded rod for reuse or recycling (industrial metabolism) and let the ancient timbers decompose naturally (biological metabolism).
Spoiler alert: Verti’s holiday gift from me this year is a strawberry patch outside our front door. Although I bought plastic planters, they will be protected from direct sunlight by a wooden surround made from weathered native timbers. The completed project will be attractive, durable, productive, and provide magical – and tasty – moments for years to come.