The World Bank estimates there are more than 476 million Indigenous people around the world in 2023. The IWGIA reports as many as 8.7 million of those people are in the U.S., and 20% of them live in American Indian communities and Alaska Native villages. California has the largest population of Natives in one state, and New York City has the largest population in one city.

One continual problem with Native nations is that they have treaties in place with the federal government, but the funds they get often fall short of what’s truly needed. How can one preserve the cultural heritage and still honor the heritage of Indigenous people?

The Careful Balance of the Environment and Indigenous Peoples’ Needs

For centuries, the relationship between Indigenous people and the environment has focused on balance. It’s believed that you protect and give back to the land, animals, and bodies of water that provide so much to the people who live in the world. 

Damage caused to sacred sites due to environmental harm from global warming and pollution is hard to ignore. Everyone needs to do their part in helping Natives protect the world, and that starts with proper recycling.

Reuse and Recycling Among Indigenous People Over the Decades

Look back at some of the earliest practices of Native Americans. Start with the first meals shared by Native Americans and the colonists who landed at Plymouth Rock. If what history has taught is true, Natives planted corn seeds with the fish they caught. Instead of throwing away parts of a fish that weren’t used, they engaged in composting, taking the meat for themselves, and giving back the unusable portions to the soil as a nutrient for the vegetables they grew.

Natives hunted for meat, but the animal pelts were not disposed of. They cleaned, cured, and wore those skins. They traded with people to get things they needed and provided others with necessary items that the Natives had too much of. It’s an early form of freecycling. Give away what you don’t need and ask for things you do need that others might be ready to throw out.

Items were also repurposed. A tipi shell wore out and developed rips or holes. It could be cut down and turned into moccasins. Bones and stones could be reworked into jewelry or beads. Shells could become tools to eat with. Large shells could be turned into drinking vessels.

The Navajo Nation EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Program is worth looking at. It’s a great example of the work Natives do to protect the environment and establish successful recycling practices. The Navajo Nation has practices in place for disposing of medical waste like sharps, carcasses from animals that are raised or hunted, and waste tires. Local recycling sites are plentiful and take batteries, automobile oil, scrap metal, glass, cars, clothing, cardboard, plastics, trees and branches, paint and chemicals, and even concrete and rocks.

Aim for Zero Waste or as Close as You Can Get

Whether you live near Indigenous people or live in a village or community, recycling and composting are important. It can be costly to set up a facility, but small practices at home can make a big difference.

When you purchase items, aim for items that support a circular economy. While there are plastic bags of apples, you could bring your own reusable produce bag and purchase apples individually. If your budget requires you to purchase the apples in a plastic bag, save that bag and recycle it the next time you go to a grocery store with a plastic film recycling bin. You can also recycle items like bread bags, bubble wrap, and air pillows.

Reuse as much as you can. If you bought some carrots and found they were growing mold a week later, see if you can cut off and compost the moldy parts and save the rest. Instead of risking them going back, once you’ve purchased carrots, grate and freeze some, blanche and freeze coins or cubes, and puree some and freeze them for soup stock. They will last longer in a freezer.

Keep food waste from the landfill. Compost all of your vegetable scraps to help new plants thrive. You can’t compost meat scraps for use in a garden you eat from, but depending on area laws, you might be allowed to compost meat scraps and bones in a device like a Green Cone Solar Waste Digester. It harnesses the power of the sun to break down fish, meat, dairy, and bones into a small amount of solid waste and compost liquid that goes into the soil to provide nutrients to nearby trees and grass.

If you do have furniture, small appliances, clothes, and shoes that are no longer needed or don’t fit correctly, see if anyone else in the village or community could use them. Freecycling is a great way to keep items from going into the landfill. If they’re in great shape, you could sell them in a yard sale or online and make some extra cash. Meanwhile, that item is going to someone who needs it.

Know what you can recycle. Check a guide for the local recycling center and make sure you’re not improperly recycling. Food jars should be washed out. If you recycle a jar of pasta sauce without washing it first, that sauce could end up all over other recyclables and ruin the entire load.

What you consider trash might not be viewed that way by someone else. Years ago, I had a snowblower with a seized motor. It was almost 30 years old and had been in use since I was a kid. I was ready to dispose of it at a scrap yard, but a local Abenaki chief asked if he could have it free. He liked to tinker and wanted to take parts from mine and fix another he had. He did that and sold it for money that helped support his family.

Repurpose as much as you can and give an unnecessary item a new life. If you have a bookshelf that’s not being used, you could refinish it, put it in a closet, add some small bins, and you have a lot of storage for socks, belts, and other small items. Turn old, worn tires into raised bed gardens for flowers. Paint the tire in waterproof outdoor paint, fill it with garden soil, and fill it with seeds or starter plants. Put the taller plants in the center and the smaller ones in the outer ring.

When you have ripped clothing, it could become squares for quilts. A quilt is a useful covering for cold winter nights. Keep used clothing from the landfill and turn it into warm quilts with matching pillow covers. You can also use the patches to mend clothing that has holes.

Wherever you live, put the recycling and repurposing options available to you to good use. Keep as much from the landfill or recycling facility as you can. The more that is reused, the better it is for the environment. If you need help finding your local recycling options, visit Recycle Nation to learn exactly where you can recycle different items.