The Redemptive Economy: Part I

A look into the secret society of unlikely recyclers.

By Ragan Sutterfield

Several years ago, when I lived in Chicago, the August nights would get so hot that I couldn’t sleep. What fans I had would just circulate the hot air, making my room a convection oven, and my bed a pool of sweat. The only choice was to go down the street to the all-night Middle Eastern café and read, or sit in a lawn chair on the fire escape. Tired, I usually chose the latter.


One night, sitting on the fire escape half asleep, I heard the low rumble of a truck coming down the alley. It was 3 a.m. and gunshots were more common noises than trucks in the alley at that hour. I looked down and watched as the noise grew and lights gave way to fenders. The truck moved up behind my building.

My neighbors had set a few broken things against the dumpster—a highchair, a vacuum cleaner, a picture frame. The truck stopped, its engine still running, and two men in t-shirts and mesh baseball caps climbed out.

I saw them as shadows against the sideways light of their headlights, but I could hear them talking quickly but quietly in Spanish. They grabbed the broken items and put them in the back of their truck along with a pile of other things people had thrown out. They climbed back in the cab and rolled slowly forward. I could hear them stop a few times down the alley, behind the other buildings.

Seeing these men was like peering into some secret society. I realized that there is a whole redemptive economy at work where broken things are fixed and trash restored. It is an economy at the margins, driven less by the desire to be green, than by a certain frugality and the art of getting by.

I began to watch for this economy more closely, noticing the broken things by the dumpster and the days they would disappear. When I moved back to Arkansas I watched for it there too. And I saw it—a garage sale of salvaged appliances and toys in front of a house that could generously be called a shack; an old man reaching deep in the trash can at a gas station to fish out a few cans and throw them in the back of his dented truck; a man on an old bicycle with a bag of cans in a clear plastic bag over his shoulder.

This was an economy that didn’t pass up or throw away what is valuable—a can is worth something, an old washer is worth something, even if both together couldn’t pay for a Venti Mocha.

Getting these glimpses into this underground world of the redemptive economy I thought of a description Wendell Berry gives of the “Branch” family in his novel Hannah Coulter:

A junkyard is a gold mine to them…They catch or shoot or find or grow nearly everything they eat. When they need to, they do a little custom work on the side, they trade and contrive and make do, getting by and prospering both at once. It doesn’t seem to bother them that while they are making crops and meat and timber, other people are making only money that they sometimes don’t even work for.

Compared to the latte-drinking world of my class, I do pretty well when it comes to recycling in my own life. I compost and it takes me nearly three weeks to fill a trash can. But compared to the world of “getting by” I am a storm of waste. I can’t even imagine the number of cans I’ve thrown out because at the moment it was inconvenient to save them.  The amount of waste I have created by getting rid of marginally broken things is appalling.

For all of my “green” credentials, I don’t compare to these people who could care less about the latest Bill McKibben book or a Sierra Club membership. They are actually enacting the essential practices we need for a green economy. So I decided to learn from them, to go into the world of the redemptive economy. I started at a junk yard.

Tomorrow—Part II: Scenes from a Junk Yard


Wonderful! About 20 years ago I - (with some wonderful volunteers on Saturdays for 3 years!)converted an old chicken barn into a lovely superinsulated, passive solar apartment using mainly reused materials --(and all new items were purchased with funds made by "giant yard sales".

I really like what you’ve said here, but it has also gotten me to thinking about how some of these problems and solutions are more complex than they might appear. What I liked initially in your post is that you focus on things that don’t cost anything to accomplish and that, in fact, make money for certain people. In some ways, I think environmental groups have created a kind of “lifestyle” that can only be practiced by those with a certain income. Being green, for instance, means shopping at Whole Foods. Sadly, though, since everything there costs twice as much as food at Krogers, the poor or less wealthy can’t afford to shop there. Same thing with “green” cars. So, what struck me is that there are two sorts of “environmental” economies at work – one struggling to survive and recycling without much thought, the other making a huge production of it and turning it into a costly exercise.

Here in our place, there’s this store that sells gift items made from waste materials. There are bags made from tetra packs. There are display items made from plastic materials and PET bottles. It’s really nice because you’ll realize that there’s money in trash.

In relation to what Paula mentioned in her comment, one Pension House here in our place was converted into a Waste Converting Facility. This is where all wastes from our street are dumped and are then converted into useful materials.

One time, all non-working mothers in the neighborhood were called to gather together to attend on some bag-making workshop. Eventually the mothers began working on bags made out of rags. Now, these bags are exported abroad.