The Trending Art of Personal Sustainability
“Reuse” to Show Your Stripes
Photo by Anton Maksimov on Unsplash
This is a guest post by Sarah R., an energy & environment professional based in Washington, D.C. For more on these topics, please follow her on Twitter! This article was originally featured on Medium by the Climate Conscious publication.
Sustainability is cool. Especially in big city metropolises where personal style meets personal values, and where conversations return to concern over climate and the environment. But distinguishing between impactful behaviors and greenwashing, consumerism-driven trends is the true test of sustainability.
Learning to reuse and creatively repurpose household items is essential for those interested in generating less waste. Going beyond our own households, the reuse principle thrives on community. The gift economy, local marketplaces, and resale platforms allow products to have a second or even third life. When achieved at the community scale or larger, keeping existing products in circulation and curbing demand for new products can protect valuable natural resource bases like forests and wetlands.
The “R” in Sustainability
Most personal sustainability efforts align with the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Reducing consumption carries the highest impact of the three. By not buying a product, we signal less demand for a good and fewer of those goods are produced, reducing strain on the planet’s natural resources.
Reusing and repurposing items can be just as impactful for the products we need to buy or already have. Some items — like glass jars and plastic containers — can be used multiple times before being tossed in the recycle bin. And while recycling is critical for certain materials, it falls at the bottom of the hierarchy because of the high energy and financial cost of breaking items down to their raw materials.
All products have an environmental footprint that consists of the water, energy, and other inputs that went into making that item. The footprint of a cotton tee shirt might consist of water, fertilizer, and pesticides used to grow the cotton, and energy for processing the cotton into a textile and transporting it to the consumer. Some estimates might include second-order impacts like land degradation associated with growing the cotton and the opportunity cost of growing another crop — perhaps a food crop — in that field.
With a growing global middle class and the advent of fast fashion, the apparel industry’s unsustainable practices are set to balloon. According to the UN, about 60% of material made into clothing is made from plastic, including polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles. Plastics are derived from oil, so your favorite yoga pants might have originated in a Texas oil well.
On top of the problematic origins of most textiles, we’re also buying more clothing and getting less use out of it. If these trends continue, resource consumption in the apparel industry alone is expected to triple by 2050.
Alternatives to Buying New
Extending the life of apparel and other items (i.e. through reuse) can prevent the harm that comes with manufacturing new products. Some companies, like The Renewal Workshop, aim to extend the usable life of existing products by repairing slightly damaged items and reselling them. Some outdoor retailers, such as Patagonia and REI, have created online shops for used gear and clothing, acknowledging the negative impact of unnecessary consumption on the natural environment.
Online resale platforms like ThredUP benefit both buyers and sellers. You can earn cash or credit by simply mailing your unwanted clothes to the retailer for resale. Buyers benefit by purchasing clothing at a discount, and in that way, we all benefit from keeping those items in circulation.
Facebook Marketplace is another resale platform that allows you to sell items locally, but without having to give a cut of your earnings to a retailer or consigner. It’s integration with Facebook means you can post your item and communicate directly with potential buyers through Facebook Messenger.
When you can’t find a good use for items that aren’t fit for resale, you can still connect with other people who might need them. Facebook Buy Nothing groups are hyper-local communities that allow members to post items for giveaway and solicit items from the group. The main rule with Buy Nothing groups is that everything must be free — no charging or bartering. Items posted in the groups include houseplants, baby items, furniture, crafting materials — and everything in between.
Reuse & Upcycle with Verve
Upcycling is the art of making higher quality, more functional items from waste materials. It takes vision to see a beautiful design in a torn pair of jeans or to create a colorful planter out of a tin can, which is why creativity and reuse go hand in hand. Exploring ways to reuse household items and materials can be a back door to your own creative expression.
Through Sashiko, the Japanese art of mending clothes, you can bring new life to torn or worn-out clothing. Quilting, collage, scrapbooking and other creative arts allow you to create meaning from materials otherwise bound for the landfill or recycling bin. And with a touch of paint, you can create stunning hanging planters from plastic bottles.
How To Start Reusing at Home
- Old furniture can be livened up with new upholstery or a fresh coat of paint.
- Decorative boxes can be used to store tea, jewelry or photographs. Small boxes can also be used as organizers in cosmetic drawers or tool boxes. Marie Kondo has inspired countless ways to reuse boxes around the house.
- Plastic containers (e.g. yogurt tubs) and rigid takeout containers can be used to store leftovers or send dinner party guests home with food. You can also use them as planters by poking holes in the bottom for drainage.
- Glass jars can be used to store food like nuts, rice, grains or bacon grease. They can also be used to store cosmetics, hair clips, crafting materials, and tools. Jars can double as drinking glasses and small vases, and can be repurposed into candle vessels.
- Fabric swatches can be crafted into coasters, clothing patches, quilts — and at the end of their life, cleaning rags. Old cloth can be sewn into reusable produce bags, laundry bags, or totes.
- Gift wrapping materials such as twine, ribbons and gift bags can be saved and reused multiple times.
- Old shampoo and conditioner bottles can be refilled with shampoo or conditioner concentrates.
- Food scraps and tea bags can be composted commercially by dropping off at city or county composting sites or certain grocery stores. You can also start your own outdoor compost pile or indoor worm composting bin.
- Shredded newspaper and egg cartons can be used as “browns” in worm composting.
- Egg cartons can be used for seed starting.
- Paper can be used to its fullest by writing notes, to-do lists, or quick calculations on scrap paper or the back of old printed pages.
- Toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer lint make great tinder for starting a fire.
- Altoids tins can be converted into mini survival kits.
There’s no right or wrong way to reuse. In fact, there are countless ways to extend the useful life of things around us. How have you incorporated reuse in your hobbies or creative endeavors?
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