Tissues. Clamshells. Diapers. Cell phones. As Americans, we buy things to use and then throw away. But the harms to the environment by waste will catch up to us soon. Then, as Giles Slade writes in Made to Break, "The golden age of obsolescence... will go the way of the buffalo.”
A handful of community and national organizations out there are ahead of their time. They focus not just on the importance of recycling and using recycled and biodegradable materials, but reuse of everyday items—and they're helping us better understand how to be better consumers. Here are just a few that are innovating within their community to make big change with everyday items.
1. Greener Grads
In 2013, a group of high school graduates in gowns made of recycled bottles got Seth Yon thinking. He saw these students wear graduation gowns for an hour and a half, then just toss them away. The pitched gowns were enough to fill the back of Yon's Ford Taurus.
He started Greener Grads to cut the waste once and for all.
The company collects thousands of used gowns from schools, former students, and thrift stores to rent to graduates just for the day. Its model provides a better alternative to the status quo—where schools expect students to buy their own gowns that are most likely used once and left to collect dust in a closet or landfill.
With grads wearing 5 million gowns each year, this is no small matter, especially because most gowns are made of polyester (which is derived from petroleum). The process to make the gowns requires a lot of energy and oil and can pollute water.
Renting gowns is both more sustainable and often cheaper than buying—purchasing gowns can run you from $30 to $300, plus any late or shipping fees, Yon says, while rentals are less than $30. This can help students who have trouble affording graduation.
After a year and a half of business, Greener Grads is starting to distribute gowns on a larger scale. Their goal for this year is to collect 1 million gowns.
"We're off to a great start," says Yon.
After growing from a few rural schools in Michigan and Kentucky to more than 100 in 23 states, Yon believes he can help shift the paradigm in an industry that has had little competition in the past 100 years. "This might be the way that it's always been done; it doesn't mean that it's been right," he says.
2. Bizee Box
In many U.S. cities, it feels like efforts to reduce restaurant waste are moving backward. New York City just reversed its ban on Styrofoam, for instance, which means clamshell takeout containers are back to clogging up landfills. But farther west in San Diego, Bizee Box is trying to lay the groundwork for a new way to store food.
Inspired by programs like the Portland-based GO Box and those at universities across the country, Bizee Box promotes the use of reusable takeout containers. Restaurants pay for the containers in bulk, and diners who subscribe to a free smartphone app can use them to transport leftovers. They then drop off the containers at a community site near the restaurant, or another centrally located spot, like a grocery store.
What is great about these containers is that they can be used, microwaved and washed up to 350 times. Company CEO Rich Grousset says he recalls a 2010 industry report saying that around 11 billion clamshells a year are sold in the United States.
Very few of those are recycled, as most are made of polystyrene foam, or what most people call Styrofoam. That's not including other kinds of takeout containers, like pizza boxes, soup cartons, salad bowls, or stir-fry boxes, he continues.
"They break down, they get in our waterways, they become litter, they end up in either the ocean, or in the stomachs of fish that we end up consuming," Grousset says. "There's all sorts of problems associated with those takeout containers."
After running a few pilots and completing a crowdfunding campaign just last year, Bizee Box is working to make connections with restaurants in San Diego communities right now. Grousset says he hopes to expand eventually to larger cities, like New York and San Francisco.
3. Party In My Pants
Women on average throw away as much as 300 pounds of disposable menstrual products in their lifetimes. In fact, if you stacked up how many tampons that are used, they would be twice as tall as the Empire State Building.
A small Wisconsin company's doing important work to counter that by making reusable cloth pads.
Because of the creatively named Party In My Pants, thousands of pads and tampons have stayed out of the landfill. Luci Daum and her sister started the company in the '90s, after learning from their grandmother that she used to make cloth pads when she was younger. Today, the company's reusable pads can last up to five years if they are washed and cared for properly.
Daum says she thinks the stigma of periods pushes many women to use products that they throw away. Her pads, she believes, make for a more positive experience because they're more comfortable—and come in 60 different patterns, including ones decorated with unicorns and plaid.
"Our culture really does a number on us psychologically. That we're dirty, that we're gross, we should hide," Daum says.
With her cloth pads—full disclosure: I use them—she adds, "So much negativity changes into this, 'Hey, I'm kind of badass, and every single human on the planet is here because women have a fertility cycle.'"
Party In My Pants sells at Daum's local co-op in Ashland, Wisconsin, online, and in stores across the country and abroad.
No matter what their product, these local entrepreneurs have one unifying message: We need to think about waste and efficiency in our everyday lives. Even if you're not graduating tomorrow, or don't eat out enough, the idea of reusability is so basic that it's often overlooked. For instance, Grousset says takeout containers are visible, tangible opportunity to promote reuse because they're something that people see, hold in their hands, and eat out of. It's one small way for you to better support a community-led shift to a more sustainable culture.
And if you don't have such programs in your area, you can still take their ideas to heart.
Bring a jar or thermos for your morning coffee instead of using a disposable cup. Try a Tupperware for your leftovers at restaurants. If applicable, use a menstrual cup, sea sponge, or pads you've made yourself at least sometimes. Trade old graduation gowns, wedding or prom dresses or even everyday clothes online or with friends.
Lastly, be sure to take the words of Daum as your mantra: "Single-use anything is just total and utter silliness."
Emily Zak is a Santa Fe-based social justice writer. Her work also appears on sites like Care2 and Heart Beings. A native Idahoan, she wishes she could ski powder and play pond hockey year-round. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyEZak.