5,000 Years of Eco

Glass bottles were often reused, this demijohn was protected by wicker basketwork.

The idea of being eco-friendly is spreading on St. Martin. We can see images from around the world of birds, sea turtles, and even whales that died after eating plastics. We find litter on our own beaches, and the eternal fire of the Philipsburg dump is a constant reminder that we are making more waste than we can handle.

Progress seems slow at times. Recycling on a small island is a little harder, because those materials usually have to go somewhere else to be recycled. It also takes time to build awareness. Promotion of recycling and other eco practices took decades to become established in Europe and North America.

On the other hand, St. Martin has a deep history of reusing and recycling. In fact, it stretches all the way back to prehistory. Visit an archaeological site and you can see the evidence. Conch shells were made into a variety of tools: axes, scrapers, awls and more. This may be first example of reusing a “single-use food container” on St. Martin.

A conch shell tool made by Amerindians on St. Martin.

During the colonial era, St. Martin was a remote outpost. Goods arrived slowly by boat and nothing went to waste. Metalwork was done by hand-powered forge so St. Martiners could make their own nails and horseshoes. Old or broken items could be melted down to make new things.

A forge blower for backyard metalworking.

In the early 20th century, there were few jobs on the island. Some St. Martiners living today remember wearing dresses made from cloth flour sacks. In an interview, Delphine David explained that her mother “used to take the flour bag, wash it good, put it in the sun and let the sun draw out the marks…she would take that bag and measure us and crochet right around, tie our waist with a string and that would be our outfit.”

There was recycling in the kitchen, with graters made by hammering holes in a tin can. On the docks even today you can see fish scalers made from bottle caps nailed into a wooden handle. Perhaps the most elegant examples of Caribbean recycling is the steel pan drum. It transforms waste into art.

A new handle extends the life of this rake.

Waste on St. Martin is a modern problem, and will require many solutions. We need to generate less trash and adopt alternatives to plastic. We need to process our waste better. In some ways these are new skills and habits. Some of the ideas and expertise may come from outside. But when it comes to reusing and recycling, there are deep traditions on St. Martin that we can tap into. This creativity and ingenuity is a part of local culture we can all celebrate and embrace.

What is your favorite historical or recent example of reusing or recycling on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

Metal hinges often outlasted wooden shutters and were reused.
This old hinge, along with a wire, was used to ground an electrical line.

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