Reuse Until It Feels Brand New

As a note: although reuse can be of any item, regardless of its function or design, my story and focus is and has always been on clothing. This is because of multiple reasons. Even at a young age, I was very exposed to clothing, unlike many other household items. Further, in our society, where we may only have one kettle or one TV at any given time, many of us have hundreds of articles of clothing, and the use gotten out of each item is often much less than its value as a resource comparatively. It was for these reasons that I discovered my passion for not only clothing reuse, but also for its promotion. I may have lived a short life so far, but this situation is tightly stitched (watch for that pun!) to who I am and likely will continue to be.

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When I was a little girl, it was paradise every time I got a bag full of hand-me-downs from girls (or even boys) slightly older or taller than me, and I felt I had discovered a pot of gold – all the riches in my little world were hidden within that collection of t-shirts and stockings. Pulling out already-loved-shirt after already-softened-jeans, I would make my way through the treasure trove that was a huge garbage bag or cardboard box, choosing at my fancy and whim which articles I would add to my closet and which would move on to the next, equivalently lucky child. By the age of ten, I had set foot in a clothing store only a handful of times, and those expeditions were always extremely short and determined – my mother walking briskly to the sock and underwear aisle to grab a 12-pack of striped girls’ panties before marching me to the cash-register to pay and getting the heck out of that place of consumerism. To say the least, my mom hates shopping for clothing. This mostly stems from her childhood, when her parents lived as many young couples with families in the post-war era – penny by penny, reusing whatever they could and fixing or repurposing rather than buying new. My mom grew up getting hand-me-downs from her older sisters, who’d received them from their older cousins and so on. Contrary to what one might think due to my mother’s behaviour within my lifetime – her adamant refusal, whenever possible, to buy clothing new – she hated these passed-down jackets and dresses as a girl and sometimes vehemently refused to go to school, thinking she would be teased for her four-years-too-late style. Funny how history has a way of repeating itself…

For the first time, when I was eleven years old, my older cousin took me on a shopping spree. I was thrown right into one of the largest malls in North America with a couple hundred dollars cash and a nineteen year old fashionista – what did my mom expect? I bought a bunch of clothing, and I loved it, and I wore it all the time. But I also became embarrassed by all my other outfits – the ones that I hadn’t picked out in a brand name store. I still wore them, but I would tell people I’d forgotten where I bought them if they asked me. So much of our pre-teen years are spent trying to prove that we are ‘in with the crowd’, and I felt like I was living a double life – I was sure someone would rat me out at any moment and tell everyone that I was wearing a hand-me-down. Why I was so scared of this discovery is beyond me now, and I don’t think there was ever any logic in it. Being the generation that learned from a young age to recycle and not idle, you would think that reusing clothing would have been a more readily discussed topic as well. But it just wasn’t. And so I thought that I would be at the butt-end of a joke if it ever came out that I didn’t pay for my clothes (even though at that age, no one else did either really, it was mostly our parents’ money).

And then, one day when I was fifteen, I went on another shopping spree with a friend in Toronto – I’m from a small town – and she took me to her favourite store, one of many second-hand stores along Bloor Street. Suddenly, I realized that there were lots of young people out there in the world who loved scavenging for little jewels that were pre-loved. And I started openly telling my classmates and peers that I had bought my favourite pair of boots at the thrift store in town, or that my shirt was a hand-me-down from an older cousin that had been sitting in a closet since 2004 and was totally giving off vintage vibes. Much to my surprise, people reacted positively to my honesty about the origin of my clothing. Extremely positively. Suddenly I had buddies to join me on my thrift shopping adventures and people to organize clothing swaps with all throughout my high school years. And I adored my well-worn, pre-loved clothing even more.

It must have been this love that drew me to the well-cared-for closet – the UBC Free Store and its little group of volunteers – sporting second-hand clothing, school supplies, household items and much more. (Just because another random student has cooked in that pot doesn’t mean you can’t use it for the next five years!) And on top of all that, the Free Store concept was even better than anything I could have ever imagined. To me, it was the globalized and industrialized (but in a super positive way!) version of the garbage bags of hand-me-downs that I used to receive as a child. Now it wasn’t just something between friends, or in the family—it was something that was shared with strangers, anyone who could give and take as they desired, because in the end, everything would get balanced out. Something interesting happens when money is taken out of the equation: so goes guilt, greed and embarrassment. It’s not just about passing on clothing, it’s about sharing whatever you have to share. Essentially the Free Store concept is the modern version of the entire human society thousands of years ago, before money even existed. And in some ways, that works. Not for everything, but for reducing waste and reusing all sorts of items, it works. And it educates.

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I’ve been at university for six months now, and I have yet to set my foot into a store selling new clothing. I don’t even think of that as an accomplishment. I just proudly wear my UBC Free Store clothing and tell everyone I meet about how amazing it is, how accessible it is and how free it is. The more we all openly discuss and support the idea of reuse, the more normal it becomes. You’d be surprised how acceptable reuse actually is in society, yet each one of us thinks that we will be labeled for wearing clothing, or using cookware or writing with half-empty pens that lacked tags when we picked them up. Trust me, be proud to show off those items. Be proud as you walk out of any second-hand store or Free Store with a new outfit to show off. Be proud to dumpster dive for ball gowns or food (I’ve done both!) and organize clothing swaps or sharing fairs. Maybe you can trade your bike-fixing skills for a free haircut! Visit the UBC Free Store and see what it has to offer! It might be a struggle to make reducing, reusing and recycling a worldwide, accepted way of life, but the way to start is to proudly demonstrate your subscription to this lifestyle. History has a way of repeating itself, so let’s make those repetitions as positive as possible, because maybe one day, every child’s joy will be a new bag of hand-me-downs and the knowledge that they are adding to a conscious and positive society.

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-Kirianne Ashley, UBC Free Store

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Why do we collectively stink at waste disposal?

We produce a lot of waste. Even the best of us produce kilograms on kilograms per year. It’s a shame in a way. Waste is well, a waste. Often throwing away trash marks a sad end to a piece of plastic’s life. Even when recycled, is it really the same?

How long do you spend thinking about where to throw out your waste? Imagine you just got take-out sushi and a juice box for lunch. You approach the waste receptacles, probably dreadingly. We all hate waste. It’s a burden. We just want to get rid of it, as fast as possible! So you walk over, see the bins, recycling, paper, garbage and compost if it’s at UBC. Without really hesitating or thinking twice, you separate and toss your stuff in hopefully the proper bin. If there’s any careful consideration at the point of disposal, it’s probably what, 3 seconds? And maybe, in the case of UBC students, we think that because, you know, we’re intelligent students at a worldwide university, known for its environmental focus and robust sustainability infrastructure, that we’re probably right in our 3 second instant calculation pretty often! Nope…

Does it surprise you that 79% of the contents in the garbage stream of UBC’s student Nest isn’t garbage at all? That’s a 21% success rate for garbage disposers. When Common Energy performed a waste audit of the garbage of the Nest last year, this is what we found:

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Green: Compost, Grey: Recycling, Blue: Paper, Black: Garbage

What’s all that compost doing in the garbage? Do people not realize that food is food? Who mistakes a half-eaten slice of pizza with broken glass, a plastic straw, or saran wrap (authentic garbage items)?

It was pretty sad to see the untouched food below and much more end up in the garbage as well. Particularly troubling as millions of people don’t get enough to eat here in Canada and worldwide. According to the UN about a 1/3 of worldwide food production is wasted, and I doubt very much of it even ends up in the compost (not that that would really make it much better).

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Tragic.

Is there an explanation for our atrocious waste sorting habits? Let’s explore a few possibilities:

Explanation 1: Sorting out waste properly is beyond the intellectual capabilities of average human beings. It is simply too difficult to determine what goes into each of the four main streams. Especially for university students on their lunch break, apparently?

Admittedly, it is a tad bit confusing knowing what goes in what. But do you really believe the inherent difficulty in sorting out waste was what led to the kind of abominable statistics we collected last year?

Explanation 2: People don’t take the time to sort out waste properly.

I mean, yeah, this is probably the major one.

Explanation 3: People aren’t aware enough of how to sort it out, and that waste disposal is such a huge issue! This is where Common Energy comes in! We perform annual waste audits to get statistics about how students sort it out, but also to raise awareness!

Reducing your total waste consumption is challenging, but so worth while (and way more important than just sorting it out correctly). Check out my past blog post about going Plastic-Free for a month last July! This New York Times article is also useful for reducing food waste.

We’ll be doing our audit in front of the Nest this Wednesday March 15th! UBC students, sign-up to volunteer:  https://goo.gl/forms/5DJ0Zcfa6OjR6SIq1

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Waste audit in action.

By the way, did you know how to sort out the hypothetical sushi/juice box you had for lunch? The take-out container is most likely recycling, but if you soiled it with soy sauce, it should be go in the garbage. The tetra-pak juice box is goes in the plastic recycling stream, but the straw is trash. If you couldn’t finish the sushi/wasabi/ginger, that is food, so compost it.

-George Radner                                                                                                                                               Common Energy UBC | Blog Coordinator | Zero Waste Co-Coordinator

References/Further reading:

Full report on last year’s Waste Audit of the Nest: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t2Mtdhp3hoPq-og88s9mzjJAa9yOdayCEpliL4ispqM/edit

Canadian data on disposal and diversion rates: https://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/default.asp?lang=en&n=D2EA2E21-1

UN factsheet about food waste: https://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/default.asp?lang=en&n=D2EA2E21-1

Italy’s effort to reduce food waste through legislation: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36965671

My friend’s video blog about going zero waste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m98I-qcwDNA

Conscious Consumerism: Why Shopping in Sales May End up Costing More than You Think

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It’s that time of the year again. I see the signs everywhere, on the street, in the flyers, in my e-mail inbox – retailers are holding end-of-season or clearance sales. Trust me, I know how hard it is to resist all the seemingly great deals. Everything in the store up to 70% off looks awfully good when you’re a lowly university student on a tight budget. But besides the damage it will do to your wallet, have you ever considered how buying one more thing just because it’s cheap can put pressure on the environment or the society?

Just think about it. How can an item made from resources mined or grown from different parts of the world, manufactured on the other side of the planet, and shipped across the globe to be sold here cost so little? A consequence of globalization is that we don’t really know what happens at the “cradle” or “grave” in the life cycle of a product. How are multinational companies dealing with the workers and communities in developing countries? Are the municipalities really processing the collected recyclables in a sustainable way? Or just shipping them off to a place with less stringent environmental regulations? Even when everything is done according to sustainable and ethical principles, more stuff always means that more resources (whether renewable or not) are consumed, but it is invisible because the low prices never reflect the cost of the environmental and social impact.

Take clothing, for example. It takes energy, water, and [gasp] chemicals to grow the cotton, and more energy to transport it from the farms to the textile manufacturers to retailers. Within the manufacturing process, washing, de-sizing, bleaching, rinsing, dyeing, printing, and finishing also require energy. When you throw away your unwanted clothes, shipping them to landfills takes energy, too, not to mention the space they take in the ever more precious landfill location. In addition, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Extensive pesticide usage leads to soil acidification and agricultural run-off that causes hypoxia, which is a fancy word for low or depleted oxygen in a water body often due to algae bloom. This results in a dead zone where aquatic life is limited, causing significant disruption to the ecosystem. Water demand of the clothing industry is huge. On average, a cotton T-shirt requires 2,500 litres of water and a pair of jeans takes over 10,000 litres of water to produce. Take a look at your wardrobe. How much water goes into all the clothes you own? Probably A LOT. As water shortage is becoming a pressing issue, it is important to conserve water usage even in not-so-obvious places.

And that is just one example. It’s not something that most of us think about, but from the computer I’m typing on to the coffee in my mug, everything we buy had to come from somewhere. The resources required for their raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, lifetime in use, and ultimate disposal are astounding if we really delve into the details. I’m not saying we should all become dumpster divers and never buy anything ever again in order to minimize human impact on the environment, but being more thoughtful when we shop is always a good idea. Yes, shopping local and voting with your dollars is a great solution. I have another suggestion: visit your local thrift stores!

Too many people wash their hands clean just because they recycle, but remember that recycling comes at the end of the 3R’s principle (because the recycling process – you guessed it – also requires energy), while reusing is number one! We’ve all been there, buying something impulsively but never using it. Declutter your space. Get rid of what you don’t need and donate back into the community. Your trash could very well be another person’s treasure and vice versa. You can not only save money but also the environment. You eliminate a big chunk of resource consumption when you opt for a perfectly good used item rather than a brand new one.

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Did you know that there is a thrift shop right here on campus where you can donate your unwanted items and also browse for something you just might need? Best of all, it’s all free! UBC Free Store is located on the second floor in the Nest in room 2102, right next to the Hatch Art Gallery. We are always accepting donations and open whenever the Nest is open.

To learn more, visit: https://www.facebook.com/ubcfreestore/

Other Resources:

  1. Life Cycle Assessment Commons
  2. Water Footprint Network