Nov. 15 marks the 22nd annual America Recycles Day, a day focused on educating and motivating Americans to recycle more effectively. Yet with all of the recent disruptions to recycling markets it can sometimes feel as though we are out of good options for managing our unwanted materials. If the future of recycling seems bleak, perhaps today we might turn our attention to another strategy highlighted in our solid waste management hierarchy: reuse.
A quick primer: recycling is an industrial process where materials are broken down into their component parts and remade into something new. It is a critical component of Maine’s solid waste management hierarchy, but on its own, recycling is insufficient to sustainably manage the materials that move through Maine’s economy. China’s National Sword Policy, which bans the import of certain types of waste products and toughens standards on contamination rates, brought the limits of recycling into sharper focus. Cities and towns across the country — including here in Maine — are now paying for recycling services rather than being paid for recyclable materials, forcing many municipalities to rethink their service offerings.
While we lament the loss of recycling programs across the state, there is much to celebrate about all the ways in which Mainers are reusing things. These networks of reuse not only reduce waste, but contribute to stronger, healthier communities.
Reuse is often mentioned as the third part of a trio of waste management solutions: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” My own research is part of a larger effort to understand the value of reuse in the state of Maine. Unlike recycling, reusing materials means that they remain in their original form instead of being crushed, grated or melted into raw materials for new production. When we reuse things, we conserve the energy and raw materials that went into producing them. There are certainly environmental benefits to reusing compared with recycling, but critically important are the other kinds of benefits that we don’t often measure.
Used goods can be helpful to people and can even build community support for those in need. We see this with nonprofit organizations such as Welcome to Housing in Old Town, which collects donated furniture and home goods to assist people transitioning into housing after homelessness or a personal crisis. Not only does this organization keep items out of the waste stream, it provides resources to people who need them. Consider the Old Town/Orono Kiwanis Auction, an annual event that connects people to used goods at bargain prices, and uses auction proceeds to fund community programs, scholarships and civic facilities.
Maine has a long history of leadership in waste reduction and materials management, from its expansive bottle bill to important product stewardship laws. Our research indicates that Maine is also a national leader in reuse, with a strong reuse economy relative to other states. As we reflect on the changes in global recycling markets, we would do well to consider ways to support and encourage reuse across the state.
Our research seeks to learn from stakeholders where support is needed, and to help them envision policy solutions to challenges that reuse organizations are facing, including shortages of storage space and volunteer labor for sorting and distributing materials. This Nov. 15, let’s go beyond recycling. Whether you help organize a community swap, volunteer at a local reuse organization, visit a thrift store or simply lend a used item to a friend, know that when you reuse you’re building community while you reduce waste.
Brieanne Berry is a PhD candidate at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.