Recognizing the Value of Reuse

I recently tuned into an EPA webinar about valuing “stuff,” featuring Madalyn Cioci of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The main point of her presentation was that for far too long, we have considered reuse simply a means to divert waste from the landfill, when the real value of reuse goes well beyond that. Fortunately, savvy individuals, governments and businesses everywhere are beginning to recognize this.

Among Americans, there remains some confusion about reuse. It’s NOT recycling. Recycling is reprocessing materials, while reuse means using something repeatedly. Reuse encompasses repurposing things, as well as restoring, reselling, salvaging, renting and sharing goods–so everything from shoe repair to antique shops to Zipcar.  There’s no question reuse keeps things out of landfills, but most significantly, reusing stuff reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a big way.

The life cycle of stuff begins with the extraction of resources, material processing, and product design and manufacture. A lot of energy is embedded in the transformation and transportation of stuff. A lot of water is used, a lot of pollution is generated.  (If you haven’t seen Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” her short video gets at this quite well.)

The MPCA knew reuse was important, yet they often encountered the belief that reuse was a drag on the economy. So they undertook an analysis to measure the actual contribution of reuse to Minnesota’s economy. What they found was a robust segment of the economy, employing thousands of workers and doing billions of dollars of transactions annually.  They also discovered that more of a dollar spent on a reuse service stayed in the local economy than a dollar spent on a new good.  It’s not that surprising when you stop to think about it, but their report confirmed the many benefits of reuse that had been unrecognized. And as a result, the MPCA is now brainstorming about how they can support and grow the reuse sector.

Word to the wise: if your goal is to do the most you can to reduce your environmental footprint, help your local community, or save money, concentrate your efforts on reuse.  Consider the many options you have before buying something new, like refurbishing something you already own, sharing, renting, or buying secondhand through eBay, Craigslist, thrift or consignment shops or other resale venues.

Remember that our forebears strongly believed in conservation, saving and thrift. The culture of consumption was engineered to weaken those social norms, but we can make our way back if we once again appreciate the full value of reuse and how maximizing reuse can help us. In 1941, reuse helped us win WWII; in the 21st Century, reuse can greatly improve our chances of winning the battle to limit global climate change.

WWII poster circa 1941 "Wear it out, use it up, make it do!"

WWII poster circa 1941 “Wear it out, use it up, make it do!”

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