Crafty Recyclables not so Recyclable?
May 9, 2010 2:52 PM   Subscribe

What is the long-term impact of reusable art/craft projects (e.g. school "environmental" arts projects or Etsy-esque recycled jewelry & knickknacks)? Do they really help the environment or do they just delay the impact?

When I was a kid, the big environmental thing to do was to reuse scraps of paper, foil, plastic, etc and create random pieces of art, or something functional (like decorations for parties or a pencil case holder). The idea was that instead of sending these materials to landfills, we would reuse and recycle them, thereby helping the environment. But wouldn't this just make it harder for the original material to degrade when it does eventually meet a landfill?

The stuff we made wasn't going to be very usable for long and would likely make its way to a bin soon. But since it's all stuck together, you couldn't separate all the different parts of it to fit different recycling bins. The paint and glue may also affect its recyclable quality.

Is it better to just recycle the source material or does recycling have its own issues? Has anyone done a study about this?
posted by divabat to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Plastic won't degrade, no matter what you do with it. By making art out of it, you're getting more "work" out of it, but it's going to be around in 500 years time either way.

You might get less new material needed if you're using something that already exists, so there is that benefit.
posted by Solomon at 3:04 PM on May 9, 2010

Yeah I always thought the idea was less that you were keeping THOSE items out of landfill, and more that you were keeping NEW items that you would otherwise be using on your art project out of the landfill -- because the art projects will be made, no matter what, so it's better to use stuff that's trash anyway.
posted by brainmouse at 4:17 PM on May 9, 2010

If you want to buy an $item and you can either buy a brand-new $item or an $item that's made from recycled material, then it's clearly better to buy the recycled/crafts one.

This is just a sub-set of the things you're talking about, obviously, but some examples that come to mind are:
  • Felted bags made from thrift store sweaters
  • Plastic yogurt containers re-used to sprout baby plants
  • Glass spaghetti sauce jars re-used as any sort of container (decorated or not)
  • Bits of leftover bar soap used in homemade laundry detergent
  • Hand-bound notebooks with handmade paper, repurposed covers, etc
  • Jewelry made from old board game parts
  • Handmade slipcovers and cases for hand-held electronics (iPods, cell phones, etc)
A five year-old's project involving leftover wrapping paper and toilet paper tubes... probably not so much. But it's better than buying new craft supplies for them, and it helps stage the lesson of the other two Rs (Reduce and Reuse) if not the first (Recycle).
posted by ErikaB at 4:23 PM on May 9, 2010

This is an interesting question: as an artist myself, I've often thought about restricting myself to using only found/reclaimed materials.

To answer your question last question first: yes, Recycling has its own issues, although they aren't cut-and-dry. The biggest ones revolve around energy costs (it's unclear whether recycling uses more or less energy than making things from scratch - calculating the full lifecycle costs of an object is a hazy science at this point) and monetary costs. A good introduction on these issues can be found on Wkipedia's recycling article.

To me, though, Recycling's issues pale in comparison to our growing waste problem - things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are scare the living bajeesus. The problem is so built into our consume-and-discard mentality (the "our" in this case refers to residents of the US, but I'm not sure this isn't a global phenomenon). So, in my view, the benefits of recycling - taking the object out of waste and putting it back into legitimate use - far outweigh its other costs.

In view of this, recycled/found object/trash art has double-benefits. One, it's a way of rescuing/reusing the large amounts of waste types that are not currently recyclable/compostable (which, depending on where you live, can make a up a depressingly large percentage of your trash) - the longer it stays out of the trash, the less time it spends contributing to the growing waste catastrophe. Perhaps more importantly, though, it also helps foster a mentality of "what can a re-use to solve this problem?" instead of "what can I buy to solve this problem?" It's a mental shift we all need to make, and art projects can be a good place to start.
posted by TheRoach at 4:36 PM on May 9, 2010

I don't think there are enough such projects to make a dent. The real problem is the new waste we generate constantly, which far outstrips the amount reused in art projects.

So I agree that the central benefits are just keeping one less item out of a landfill, for now (it's not likely that all such project are going to be collected by the museums of the future, or handed down as heirlooms) and teaching a mindfulness about how to look for opportunities to reuse.

Reusing is only part of the solution to waste. I only recently learned that "Reduce, reuse, recycle" is in that order for a reason - it's a hierarchy of preference. The main thing we need to do, urgently, is reduce the production that creates new items and thus new waste. The reuse of existing items is second. Recycling - sending items to be broken down into components from which new products can be made - is third because it consumes resources during the process and contributes to the expansion of production - our biggest problem.
posted by Miko at 6:54 PM on May 9, 2010

Nothing in a sanitary landfill degrades. Even if stuff did degrade, a virgin bottlecap (for instance) would degrade at the same rate as a bottlecap re-engineered into an earring.

I agree the problem is that the volume of recycled craft-stuff is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other waste we generate (never mind industrial waste), so the environmental impact is barely a rounding error. It's like worrying you won't get rich if you leave a penny in the "leave a penny" cup at the store.
posted by adamrice at 8:06 PM on May 9, 2010

"You might get less new material needed if you're using something that already exists, so there is that benefit."

Yes. And that's a huge benefit, by the way. If you're not taking stuff out of the ground, besides the actual resource depletion itself, there's the energy consumption associated with its extraction, processing, transport, manufacture etc. etc. These are huge energy impacts.

"a virgin bottlecap (for instance) would degrade at the same rate as a bottlecap re-engineered into an earring"

But the idea is you're not throwing away the earring the way you would the bottlecap. The bottlecap is saving the need for increased mineral extraction and also not taking up space in a landfill because it's sitting on a jewelry box or stabbed through someone's earlobe.

Recycling does reduce environmental impact. It does not merely delay it.
posted by nthdegx at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2010

you're not throwing away the earring the way you would the bottlecap.

But you're going to die one day, and even if it remains a precious memento to one of your descendants, at some point it's going to get lost or broken or someone is going to just hate it. At some point it's going into the trash. Almost everything ultimately does, with very few exceptions.
posted by Miko at 11:43 AM on May 14, 2010

Sorry -- what's to stop it being recycled again? And even if what you say is true, which I don't think it is, if we can slow the rate of material extraction (and therefore the associated energy uses outlined above) then a) we slow the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and give the planet's regulatory cooling systems more of a fighting chance. It's not a simple case of x out, x in. The rates really do matter.
posted by nthdegx at 6:56 AM on May 15, 2010

if we can slow the rate of material extraction (and therefore the associated energy uses outlined above)

But the question is whether recycling objects as art actually replaces the purchase of objects or art that is not recycled. In other words, if you reuse one pair of bottle caps into earrings, but then drink two bottles of soda that day and throw those caps away, and/or buy another non-recycled set of earrings, you've put more waste into the system than you've kept out. I don't think, in our acquisitive society, that random acts of recycling are doing anything appreciable to slow the rates of either extraction or waste disposal.

And even if what you say is true, which I don't think it is,

What I'm saying is that people discard objects, either when they die or during their lives, and I see a very small proportion of things produced passed on to another generation for reuse. It's just not common, which is the reason we have such things as antiques stores - the mass production of old becomes valuable only through its increasing scarcity due to discarding. People do die, and when that happens, Dumpsters pull up to houses and large amounts of stuff go in. Other stuff goes to flea markets and resellers. Some small portion of that may go into recycled art. That amount, compared the amount of stuff the person used and discarded during their lifetime and at the time of their death, is insignificant.

I certainly believe in reusing everything that you can reuse safely and would like more people to do that more regularly - it would be a huge cultural change and would make a bit of a dent. But at current levels, creation of artwork from reused trash materials may teach a new way of thinking about resources, but in and of itself, is not doing enough to impact global environmental health in even a measurable way. Its value is educational, as a statement, and perhaps aesthetic, but I don't see how you can argue it's making a direct material difference over its life cycle and in the context of human behavior as it is today.
posted by Miko at 8:06 AM on May 16, 2010

Okay. Rereading the first paragraph of the question I agree that it is open to interpretation: it could be asking whether arts/craft projects using recycled material are individually good for the environment or whether they make a difference en masse. When I read it the first time I assumed the first meaning, and that's still my first interpretation of the question, but that aside I agree with most of what you've said.

I'd agree the impact of the art projects' recycling on mineral extraction is probably minimal. Is this what you mean by "random acts of recycling"? Because generally I'd say that recycling plays a valuable role -- even at its current rate which is not high enough -- in reducing the environmental impacts we've been talking about.

Interesting that my experience with death is somewhat different with the deceased's possessions almost all being passed on to relatives or sent to charity shops. I would guess that generally what people through away during their lives absolutely dwarfs the environmental impact of their death itself.
posted by nthdegx at 2:38 AM on May 18, 2010

generally I'd say that recycling plays a valuable role -- even at its current rate which is not high enough -- in reducing the environmental impacts we've been talking about.

I'm not sure this is really borne out by research; I know there's a lot of debate on the topic. The issue is that in order to recycle something (industrially, that is), a lot of energy has to be expended, from the machines burning fossil fuel which pick up, move, and sort the objects to the water and energy used to break down the materials, package and sell them, then re-form them into something new, and then package them again and transport them for sale. The consensus seems to be that recycling is least preferable of the choices of reducing, reusing (which is what art made of post-consumer stuff really is, reusing), and recycling. I'm sure it has benefits above doing nothing and continuing to extract and manufacture virgin material, but it doesn't seem to have benefits over reducing extraction by an equivalent amount.

In my region, people do send stuff to thrift shops when they die (or move), and some gets recycled. Thrift shops also have Dumpsters, though, and not everything sells, so I don't think it's a perfectly closed system of reuse. And even charity shops won't accept a lot of what's in someone's place when they move or die - half-used bottles of cleaner, opened food packages, underwear and socks, things with missing pieces.
posted by Miko at 6:51 AM on May 18, 2010

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