Friday, March 11, 2016

Well-written Piece on Reuse vs. Recycling

Check out this recent post by Max Liboiron over on Discard Studies: "The Politics of Recycling vs. Reuse."

Liboiron states: "Recycling is an industrial process that collects used or abandoned materials, and smashes, melts, shreds or otherwise transforms them into their constituent raw materials. Recycling can reduce waste, the need for virgin materials, energy consumption, air pollution, and landfill leachates, though this occurs in varying degrees for different processes. But recycling is not environmentally benign. First, recycling institutionalizes disposables and single-use items by treating them after they have been created, meaning more single-use and disposable items are guaranteed to be made and tossed in the future. Make no mistake: recycling is a form of disposal. Secondly, as an industrial process, it necessitates expenditures of energy and virgin materials, and produces pollutants, greenhouse gases and waste...Thirdly, recycling is not a closed-loop system. Even if we concentrate on the 6-30% of recyclables in the US that are actually captured in the recycling stream, and ignore the two-thirds of captured recyclables that are dumped in landfills when market prices for recyclables plummet or bails are contaminated, recycling often creates products that are 'down-cycled.' Down-cycled products are not as robust as their predecessors, nor are such products usually recyclable themselves (polyurethane plastics, for example, are often turned into asphalt or other end-of-the-line objects)...Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported 'environmentalism' and consumption."

Amen to all of this. It's not that recycling is a bad thing--it's a good thing, and we should increase the amount of materials that we collect and actually recycle. But it can't be the ONLY thing, and it surely shouldn't be the preferred thing. Back when I was little, you were taught (or at least I was, by the things which impacted me) that you can't just put all materials out to the curb in your trash bin because there really is no "AWAY." Recycling has in some ways become the new "away" for us--if we can put it in a blue bin, we feel we've done our duty, and have made the best choice we can for the greater good. But that's not really true, and that belief lulls us into complacency. Reuse is always a better choice. Designing products to last and to be able to be repaired and reused for as long as possible is key. Things should only be recycled for the reclamation of raw materials when their utility in their current form has been exhausted.

Hierarchy of waste Management
Even the US EPA's Waste Management Hierarchy, which clearly shows source reduction and reuse as the most preferred actions, kinda helps perpetuate incorrect thinking. Anything below that top tier really is a form of disposal, as Liboiron has pointed out. Different forms of disposal are better than others. The "disposal" referred to in the diagram above is really landfilling--the equivalent of saying, "we give up, we made this stuff, but don't know what the heck to do with it, so we're just gonna bury it over here and pretend it never happened."

If you're recycling, that's wonderful! It means you're being thoughtful about how to responsibly dispose of the items you use. But don't stop there--think about why you're disposing of so many things in the first place. Think about whether you could change your behavior to avoid disposing of things. Let the manufacturers of products you like know that you'd like those products to be more durable, easy to repair, and able to be upgraded over time so that even when you don't have a use for them any more, someone else might. If you can begin to think this way, you'll really be part of a cultural change.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Capitol Adorns Christmas Tree with Marine Debris

It's that time of year when my kids and I turn the dining room table into a factory for small handmade gifts constructed from reused materials. We've done penguins, snowmen, and Santa ornaments from old burned out light bulbs, refrigerator magnets from bottle caps, and stationary (note cards, envelopes, and notebooks) from old calendars, magazines, and cardboard.

Just a few of our creations. Henry the Light Bulb Penguin (left) serves an "elf on the shelf" function for my kiddos.

So I was delighted to read that some of the ornaments on this year's Capitol Christmas tree in Washington, D.C. are made from reused materials--and better yet, they're made from plastic marine debris in order to highlight the ocean plastic pollution problem.

The Capitol tree comes from a national forest in a different state each year, and is decorated by residents from that state. In 2015, the tree is from Chugach National Forest in Alaska, and artist Bonnie Dillard was selected to create ornaments after submitting a prototype of a fish made from plastic waste reclaimed from the sea.

According to, "Her trashy tree ornaments were constructed by Alaskan schoolchildren this summer from ocean refuse picked up along the Alaska coast by members of a preservation organization." Awesome! These ornaments not only represent an important part of Alaskan culture and economy (fishing), but also provided an important experiential learning opportunity for the students who made the ornaments and for everyone who views them. This is real plastic pollution from the shores of state that provided our tree--not photos of floating plastic with a lack of context that makes it easy for our minds to categorize them as part of the Mythic Land of Away. Bravo, Ms. Dillard, for helping us face the waste we generate and fail to dispose of properly.

Read the full story on And to learn more about marine plastic pollution and what you can do about it, see and

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Vinylize Makes Groovy Glasses From Old Records

I really need to set up an eye exam, and know it's time to replace my glasses, which are starting to get pretty beat up. So I've spent a bit of time thinking about glasses lately, and wondered if anyone out there was making glasses from reused materials. I came across Vinylize, made by Tipton Eyeworks in Budapest, Hungary, a company that creates eyeglass frames from old vinyl records.

According to material on their website, Tipton Eyeworks' founder, Zachary Tipton, was inspired to try old records as a material, by his father's old record collection in his garage. The first collection, made in 2004, was created from records salvaged from flea markets, fused with "biodegradable cellulose-acetate to insulate it from the effects of heat...As often as possible we use vintage acetate (always used on the Limited Edition series)." After milling with a precision CNC machine, they tumble each frame for "72 hours with wood cubes to make them smooth and shiny." See the "Quality and Design" section of their site for more information, and check out the video below, which provides an abbreviated overview of their process. On YouTube, you can learn about a limited edition set made from Pink Floyd's album High Hopes.

This article from the Budapest Times provides further info. Lovers of vinyl might be scandalized by the statement, "In the digital era the records have little use," but heartened to know that Tipton doesn't always send records the proverbial chopping block. When he finds one in good condition from an artist he likes, it ends up on his turntable instead.

Alas, Illinoisans, there appear to be no shops within our state that carry these frames, but if your heart is set on advertising your love for vintage vinyl, reuse, or both, on the prime real estate atop your nose, you can always shop online. The handmade grooviness is pricier than what you're probably used to, and probably out of my personal price range, but they're handmade and unique. I suppose some folks spend as much on expensive shoes, clothes, or jewelry. They even come with cases made from upcycled 7 inch vinyl singles--clever. And really reuseful.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Exploring All Thrifty States: Jenna's Excellent Adventure

We've all had those moments when we hear about a product, project, or idea that someone else has put out into the world and we think, "Geez, why didn't I think of that?!?" I had just such a moment recently, whilst reading a Washington Post article on the creative Jenna Isaacson Pfeuller.  Jenna's idea was born of necessity, as she shopped in thrift stores during a period of unemployment. A photographer with fond childhood memories of trips to thrift stores with her grandfather, she began taking photos of the stores she shopped at during her economic dry spell. This lead to a Kickstarter campaign and a partnership with Goodwill Industries, to document American culture through visits to thrift stores in every state--a project aptly titled "All Thrifty States."  What a fabulous, fun idea! I'm so jealous. Not of the unemployment (which is thankfully over), but of having such a bold, brilliant idea, and fearlessly following through. And of all the cool thrift store finds, of course.

Check out her web site, complete with slideshow at Although the "Stores We Hit" page implies that there are still several states left to go, the Washington Post article and slideshow testify to the fact that she has visited shops in the lower 48, with only Hawaii and Alaska remaining. Way to go, Jenna.

I think this would be such an interesting project to do with students of all ages--to visit local thrift stores and create a photo essay of the local community by documenting the discards and donations. Also, consider all the different types of stores and activities that might fall into the "thrift store" category. Sure, there's the local Goodwill and similar stores that sell reclaimed items for a cause, but what of used book stores, materials for the arts shops, consignment shops, antique malls, vintage vinyl vendors, etc.? What about the cadre of local garage sales? Does your area have a set of homes that seem to be in perpetual yard sale mode? And what about the online reuse landscape that spans eBay, Etsy, Freecycle, Craigslist, etc.?

I've written before about artists HA Schult and Chris Jordan, whose work reflects our society through what we throw away. Jenna's work, and the spin-off student project I've suggested, are a different way to paint a similar picture, showing who we are by what we cast aside. But the view is slightly different, for in thrift stores and the like, we see what we choose not to keep, but cannot quite let go of; what we no longer value, but which we believe will be of value to someone else. Why don't we see everything as having some value, to someone, somewhere?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Beyond Geek: Making Old Tech New Again

While enjoying our winter break, the kids and I came across an interesting series called Beyond Geek. We caught an episode that really piqued my interest, highlighting reuse AND electronics. Host Dan Reynoso interviews a married couple that make beautiful music together--using old computers and game consoles. Their instruments of choice include the Commodore 64, Apple II, and Gameboy handsets. They've even developed software (on floppy disks!) to use this old technology to generate electronic music. Where many see electronic waste, these folks see--and hear--art. Score one for reuse!

The episode also highlights the practice of "homebrew" NES game creation--intrepid geeks programming new games for the Nintendo NES system. Some of these "homebrewers" reuse old cartridges to house their new 8-bit adventures, while one pair actually have a manufacturer create new NES cartridges (read "job creation"). I love to see ingenuity extending the useful life of a product, and these folks are providing fun and nostalgia for gamers with technology that most would consider obsolete.

Check out a preview of "8-Bit of Fun" below.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hatch Creative-Reuse Art Festival Application Deadline Extended

For those in the Champaign-Urbana area of Illinois, applications for THE I.D.E.A. Store's Hatch Creative-Reuse Art Festival are due by November 16, 2014. The deadline has been extended. Hatch will consist of a juried Art Exhibition on February 28 to March 14, 2015, and an Art Fair on March 14, 2015. Items in the exhibition must be made from at least 75% reused materials. Items for sale at the fair must be at least 50% reused.

For more information, see

Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Re-Solutions

We're on the brink of a brand new year, but as we consider our resolutions, let's try to make the year one of the few "brand new" things we look forward to. Make some "re-solutions" instead of "resolutions" by resolving to reuse items and materials as much as possible in 2013. If you no longer have a use for something, donate it, sell it, or give it to a friend or relative who can benefit from it. Need something you don't already have? Look around at what you DO have and try to come up with a way to re-make your current under-used possessions into the "new" item that you need or want. If that turns out not to be possible, try to find what you're looking for at a thrift store, or online from a previous owner. Consider sharing items that you only use some of the time with friends and neighbors instead of owning something exclusively. Investigate how to recycle or donate most, if not all, of the items you might normally consider trash. There really are companies that will take just about anything--from old hole-ridden clothes, to used shoes, to your old furniture--I'll write about some of these options in the coming weeks and months. Try your hand at composting to turn even your food scraps into something new.

However you decide to approach the challenge, do your best to find as many ways to reuse in 2013 as possible. Our resources truly are precious; it can be so easy to forget that living in a privileged nation where most of us have want we need. Always remember that not all of us do in this world, and that if we do not value what we have been given, the day may come all too soon when resources that were once plenty are scarce. Show your gratitude for what we have by refusing to see any of it as waste. "Waste" is a failure of the imagination, a misnomer, a miscategorization. Be more imaginative in 2013. Seek out new friends, new experiences, new memories, new hopes, new dreams, new ways of looking at things, but not new things.

Peace, and Happy New Year! ~ Joy S.