- Ian Thompson
A New, Fun, Cultural Way to Recycle
At Nan Awaya Farm we're committed to making our operation and our home life as easy on the land as we possibly can. One part of that means cutting down on the amount of household trash we throw out each week. In 2023, we've started experimenting with a fun way to reuse one group of items that had been a regular part of our garbage until recently.
This post goes to what I think is a pretty interesting place, but let’s begin at the beginning. The average American produces an astounding 5 pounds of trash per day. An average household of two (our size) produces a ridiculous 3,300 pounds of trash in a year. Most of America's collective trash will sit in landfills for eternity, ruining a huge area of land. Some of the lighter weight plastics blow into the ocean, where they cause all kinds of problems for things that live in the water too.
At our house, we compost and recycle everything that we can (Thank you, Choctaw Nation Recycling Centers). Most weeks, that brings us down to about one bag of trash. That last weekly bag is really difficult to get rid of completely, but we have found a few things that help cut into it, while also benefiting our home life.
When we go to the grocery store, we put our produce in reusable mesh bags. This helps cut down on those disposable plastic produce bags that tend to end up wreaking havoc in the ocean. The mesh bags are also great for storing produce in the fridge when it comes home. When we eat the produce, we put the bags in the wash and use them again.
We’ve eliminated laundry detergent bottles from our household consumption by switching to squares of laundry fabric that dissolve in the clothes washer. This is cheaper per load than liquid laundry detergent. The soap squares come in a compostable paper envelope. That prevents a big plastic laundry detergent bottle from going into recycling each month.
This fall, we switched to a brand of cat litter made from recycled paper instead of clay. Each week, we dig a narrow post hole out in one of the pastures, bury the used cat litter in it, and plant native seeds in the loose soil on top. This system improves our soil, while cutting down our household's weekly trash by several pounds.
Since no local recycler that will take them, glass bottles have continued to go into our trash. As noted in previous posts, glass chips like flint. Some of the bottles in our trash are beautiful colors, but they're just not the right shape to make into an arrowhead.
This fall, we stumbled onto an ingenious little device called the microwave kiln. It’s a small container made of fire brick and lined with a material that gets extremely hot in the presence of microwaves. It can heat its contents up to 1700 degrees in just a few minutes. You can crush up glass bottles, and use this kiln to cheaply melt them into shapes that are ideal for making glass arrowheads. You can mix and match glass colors and come up with some pretty wild material. When my parents gifted us a microwave kiln for Christmas, it gave us a creative, traditional way to upcycle glass bottles right out of our trash.
Recently, I spent some time helping my folks in Missouri. For exercise, I got to go out to a 1,200-acre park on the edge of town. When I was a teenager I used to go there whenever I could. Back then, as I hiked, I’d collect Winterset chert for making arrowheads and plant materials for dyes. Once, when a huge ice storm hit and broke a bunch of the trees, I cleaned some out of the trails… and used the wood I removed as material for making traditional bows for years afterward. That land taught me a lot about traditional arts. Some ancient Native archaeological sites are located there as well. I used to love to look at the stone tools they left on the ground try to figure out exactly how they were made and used. Although separated by centuries, I felt connected with those ancient people, through our mutual practice of traditional arts and through our time spent interacting with the same piece of land.
Until last week, it had been years since I’d been out to that park. Experiencing it from my present vantage point, I found that land is not quite as wild as it had once seemed, but it will always be a special place to me. I climbed to the top of the hill where one of the ancient settlements was located. Rather than growing up in prairie as I'd hoped to find it, the area was growing up in the most nasty invasive plants that we work to eradicate at Nan Awaya Farm. Someone had built a fire ring on top of the hill - good to see the spot being enjoyed - but they had thrown their beer bottles all around. There were bottles lying steps from ancient stone artifacts exposed on the surface of the ground. I wonder which sentiment would have won out in the minds of the ancients who lived on this spot- annoyance at having trash thrown around their home area, or interest in the translucent, flint-like materials that the trash was made from?
As dusk approached, I gathered up the bottles. Later, I soaked them in bleach, took the labels off, crushed the glass up, and melted it down into ingots in our new microwave kiln. The title image shows the kiln with the lid removed and an ingot made from the bottle pictured here glowing with fervent heat. When the pieces cooled, I chipped them into projectile points using the same techniques I'd learned, in part, from the ancient people who lived on that hill.
A lot has changed in the past 20 years since I was last in that place, let alone the past 1500 years since they lived there. For at least one day, though, the traditional art of flintknapping, practiced by the ancient people who lived on that hill returned to transform modern beer bottle trash into pieces of traditional art.
I wonder what the people who drunk from these bottles would think if they knew what became of them and why?
There may not be enough hours in the day to melt down every single glass bottle that comes into our house and chip it into points, but I think we've come upon what might be the funnest way to cut down a bit on our household's weekly trash.