The pandemic year had led me to realize I can probably part ways with a great many items I haven't touched during this time when there is very little to do and very few places to go. For example, I've sold all of my jeans that no longer fit (because why feel uncomfortable when you can just buy the right size… and also, who needs hard pants, anyway these days?) and have donated an impressive number of Hollister sweaters I accumulated while working there through college (and stopped wearing years ago). But when I came across a half-empty bottle of green fabric dye I bought when I DIY'd a Bring It On Clovers uniform for Halloween four years ago, I was unsure about what to do with it. I didn't want to trash it, but I wasn't sure what my other options were.
This dye falls into the murky category of items that you'd feel weird donating, but know they're still good enough to use. I have a number of items like this, and also items that I know have no life left in them, but I still don't want to send them to the landfill. For instance, items like underwear that's either too small, too raggedy, or too blood-stained. The past few months have sent me down a path of trying to find a home for the odds and ends that no longer serve me without throwing them in the trash. And through that process, I've come to realize that there's a home for everything.
The past few months have sent me down a path of trying to find a home for the odds and ends that no longer serve me without throwing them in the trash. I've come to realize that there's a home for everything.
Liesel Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller figured that out reality when they started the first Buy Nothing group, a hyper-local gift economy, in their community on Bainbridge Island, Washington in July 2013. "We've got reduce, reuse, recycle, but how about if we 'refuse' first—refuse to buy?" asks Clark, who is also an environmental filmmaker for National Geographic and PBS.
We produce a lot of waste. According to the most recent available data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans produced 292.4 million tons of waste in 2018. That's about five pounds per person per day. About a quarter of that waste was recycled. Plastics, which are notoriously under-recycled, comprised about 4.5 percent of recycled items, despite accounting for just over 12 percent of the total waste produced. But even though there's clear room for improvement in the recycling department, it's not a one-to-one fix for waste production. "Refusing" new items, as Clark puts it, and finding ways to reduce waste production is what can more meaningfully help cut these numbers—and Buy Nothing is one initiative working to facilitate that goal.
Buy Nothing groups exist primarily on Facebook, but the organization is also launching a location-based app in May (you can join the waitlist here). Buy Nothing allows people to share when they're searching for an item they'd love to be gifted or have an item they'd like to part ways with. For example, consider the resealable bags that flour tortillas often come in. "I washed them out, saved them, and I posted 20 of them at a time. And lo and behold, there was a woman who absolutely wanted them," says Clark.
I joined my local Buy Nothing Facebook group in February, and I found neighbors looking to get rid of everything from air conditioners to wine racks to a Vitamix blender that sometimes leaks oil but can be all yours "if you’re up for cleaning and fixing this issue." Someone quickly commented that his girlfriend wanted a blender for smoothies, and he wanted a new project.
So I made my first post: I was able to find a home for some unused beauty products, a more-than-gently-used gel nail polish light, a cork board, and that half-empty bottle of green fabric dye. The exercise helped me realize how simple reducing waste production can be with just a tiny bit of dedicated research and effort.
There's even a use for all of the stuff that seems like absolute garbage. Animal shelters are always looking for old sheets, towels, and yoga mats. Knickey will take your old undergarments (via a free shipping label), recycle them, and gift you a new pair in return. Free the Girls accepts gently-used used bras (also through a free shipping label) and donates them to sex trafficking survivors. The North Face will take your worn-out hiking boots (just drop them off at a store), recycle them, and give you $10 toward your next $100 purchase. And art teachers will gladly take some of your recyclables for projects—Clark found that the gallery near her loves getting those foam trays that come with meats and fish and empty yogurt containers for crafts.
If figuring out which organizations take which products sounds like work, that's because it is. While throwing things in the garbage is a reflex, forming sustainable habits and stopping to think "could this have another use?" requires a mental muscle many of us aren't used to exercising. Clark confirms that switching your mindset requires thought, creativity, and dedication—but isn't that the least you can offer?
"Just be mindful that everything has value—everything," she says. "Everything is made of a material, whether it's wood, glass, plastic, metal, rubber, paper, or textiles. There is a place where everything can go, ultimately, and hopefully, be either reused or recycled."
This habit shift also requires time and space. For example, I get a lot of packages for work, and if I held on to all of the boxes to gift for reuse, my apartment would look like a scene out of Hoarding: Buried Alive. And if I tried to gift them as I got them, managing the whereabouts of boxes would become a full-time job. So, commit to doing what you can; examine your habits and see where you can mindfully and sustainably reduce your waste production, remembering that one's trash truly is another's treasure.
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