Saving the Earth by knitting ‘lucky shoes’
Ms. Lee, 80, is known in her village as the “recycling grandma.” She never forgets to take bags with her when leaves her house. She gathers whatever looks useful on the streets, but keeps an eye out for woolen yarn, milk packs and green teabag packages. She uses them to knit little-finger sized shoes with a rose design and a ribbon ― townspeople refer to them as “lucky flower shoes.”
Ms. Lee said she got the idea to put roses on shoes from an article in a newspaper she read long ago.
“I heard that a British reporter wrote in his paper that a rose would have to bloom in a garbage before Korea could become a democracy,” she said. “Because I get the wool from the garbage, the idea of the rose came to me.”
On a typical week, she knits several dozen shoes, unaided by reading glasses or anything else to help her failing eyesight. When asked if her eyes don’t hurt or her vision doesn’t dull after knitting for so long, she replied, “My fingers have their own eyes,” and laughed.
The “lucky flower shoes” weren’t always so small. But when she couldn’t find enough wool, she made mini-shoes and decided that the smaller the shoes, the cuter.
She now uses the shoes as business cards. She put them in a box made from milk boxes she gathered on the street, and on the bottom put an individual teabag package, on which she wrote her autobiography and her personal motto, “If you throw it away, it’s garbage; if you use it again, it’s environmental protection. Lee Jong-sook, an activist of reduce-the-garbage-by-half movement.”
At first, her six children and 10 grandchildren didn’t like the idea of her collecting garbage. Her granddaughter used to position herself in the street to block Ms. Lee from seeing garbage. “I just can’t help it,” Ms. Lee said. “If I see something on the street, I automatically start coming up with ideas on how to use it.”
Her family eventually caved in and started bringing her milk boxes and teabag packages they used at home, sometimes after altering them to make new shoe boxes like the ones Ms. Lee made.
Ms. Lee calls herself an environmental activist. She doesn’t like the idea of using plastic bags, which aren’t biodegradable, so she makes shopping bags out of old cloth banners for people to use. She once held a one-woman demonstration by the Dong River, Gangwon province, to oppose a plan to dam the river.
She donated 500,000 won ($525) to the National Trust of Korea for the preservation of the river. The donation was half of the money she had saved by cutting her husband’s hair for 20 years. She even charges him for it: 1,000 won at first, and 10,000 won nowadays. “That includes the transportation fee,” she joked.
Instead of using the money for herself, she gave it away to needy individuals or social causes. “One day, I heard on the radio that a priest in a remote village was asking people to send books for a library. Right after hearing that, I called a publisher to send 300,000 won worth of books to the village,” she said.
Ms. Lee has an almost uncontrollable urge to act: Whenever she hears about problems on the radio, she runs off to Seoul. “If I see something that I want to buy, I ask how much it costs,” she said, “and then save the same amount of money in a box to donate later.”
Ms. Lee said that her altruism was merely a product of growing up on a farm. “My father took me out to sow seeds when I was young. He scattered three seeds at one spot, telling me that one is for the worms, one is for the birds and the other is for people.”
by Park Sung-ha