On my morning run I had to do a double take. Seldom does one see two big dumpster bins in a driveway of a single family dwelling. Turns out a contractor was cleaning out the stuff of a recently deceased soul in our neighborhood. Seeing all this person’s possessions shattered as they were tossed into the bins broke my heart and at the same time reminded me of one very important touchstone on the way to living sustainably. No matter how much we treasure stuff, in the end it all ends up at the dump.
Yes, strides are made to explore the circular economy model where all waste becomes feedstock for new stuff but we have a long way to go before we achieve that goal. In the meantime there is merit in extending the journey between extraction and disposal by repurposing, reusing, recycling and above all respecting what went into creating the things we rely on.
Take steel for example. A couple of weeks ago I dug over a section of last year’s garden to prepare it for this year’s tomato plants. With every turn of the shovel I marvel at this fabulous tool and reminisce about my visit to the Sydney steel plant or my efforts to help clean up the mess left by the coke ovens in that industrial town. I also recall the times I sat in frigid darkness as I accompanied the miners to the face of Lingan Colliery, miles under the Atlantic ocean.
Steel is one of the most recycled materials in our civilization. It is a vital component of tall buildings, bridges, most machinery, heavy equipment and of course a litany of everyday stuff from cutlery to mason jar lids. Perhaps the least appreciated aspect of steel is that it is vital to the manufacture and production of almost everything else. From food to trinkets, the tools we use to make them all contain a critical piece of steel.
So I’m happy to report that over 50% of all steel manufactured today is produced in an electric arc furnace that uses scrap steel as its feedstock. That’s where the content of one of the two bins I encountered on my run was headed. But that still leaves half the production of this vital material dependent on blast furnaces to melt iron ore into ingots that are rolled into steel. It’s an amazing process.
For a blast furnace to achieve the required temperature of 1,650 °C (3,000 °F) requires a fuel called coke which is made from coal in a similar fashion as charcoal is made from wood. Coke is a refined form of coal if you like. That refining process results in all kinds of toxic byproducts and if not done responsibly can lead to an environmental mess. Of course making and burning coke also releases copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Back in the 1970s, when my brother and I decided to escape the corporate culture of capitalism and try homesteading instead, we scavenged old horse drawn hay mowers and rakes that were half buried, abandoned in farmer’s fields. The wooden components had all rotted away but the steel was still good. With a little tender loving care, we rehabilitated these hundred year old machines and returned them to service on our farm.
Like the shovel that I used to turn my little garden plot, these tools and pieces of equipment were made possible by some miner going underground to dig the coal and some steel worker exposed to the dangers of extreme heat at the plant. We tend to forget that as we carelessly toss things away; things that contain extraordinary amounts of energy that comes at a cost, both human and environmental.
As I lean on my shovel, which by the way I inherited from a neighbor over a decade ago, I am grateful for my life experience and how it has taught me to be more mindful of what I consume. These rich memories bring conservation home – up close and personal. Among other things, I care for my garden tools to make them last. I do this out of respect not only for future generations that will be affected by the ravages of climate change, but respect for the miners and steelworkers, many of whom gave their lives so that we can have steel. 
Thomas Teuwen
Biopheliac – Synergist