The Regenerative Benefits of Reuse

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 5-4-15

By Diane Cohen & Jackie Doherty

All of the problems in today’s world can seem overwhelming. The good news is that major challenges are being recognized and worked on, often with real, positive results. Reducing wasteful practices, and investing time and energy in systems that are “regenerative” are two of the most important and accessible ways positive change can occur.

Even if you attended the Izzy Awards hosted by the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College on April 15, 2015, you may have missed the “big idea” in journalist and author Naomi Klein’s latest message. Naomi Klein was a recipient of the 2015 Izzy Award, named in honor of I.F. “Izzy” Stone, a noted 20th Century investigative journalist. Ms. Klein spent much of her acceptance speech sharing insight into her childhood and upbringing, and how she came to dedicate the last 5 years of her life painstakingly researching and writing her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

In her book, Klein recommends taking collaborative, solutions-based approaches to the world’s pressing issues and one tactic that she believes will have profound and lasting impact is a shift from an “extractivist” mindset to one that is “regenerative”:

…living nonextractively does not mean that extraction does not happen: all living things must take from nature in order to survive. But it does mean the end of the extractivist mindset – of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration. Even such traditionally destructive practices as logging can be done responsibly, as can small-scale mining, particularly when the activities are controlled by the people who live where the extraction is taking place and who have a stake in the ongoing health and productivity of the land.” – excerpt from Klein’s book, This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything opens with a description of Naomi Klein’s former, more passive position about climate change: “I denied climate change longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure… But I stayed pretty hazy on the details… I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my ‘elite’ frequent flyer status.” Her thoughts since then have clearly evolved…

“… living nonextractively means relying overwhelmingly on resources that can be continuously regenerated: deriving our food from farming methods that protect soil fertility; our energy from methods that harness the ever-renewing strength of the sun, wind, and waves; our metals from recycled and reused sources.”

Through my work in the growing reuse industry over the last 15 years, I have come to recognize that waste reduction and energy savings are profoundly connected. Increasing the reuse of materials can have enormous positive impacts on energy consumption, from the avoided harvesting and mining of raw materials to the energy intensive transport and processing, to end of useful life processing, whether items are hauled off to the landfill or to another highly energy-intensive process: recycling.

Community ReUse Centers, such as the Triphammer ReUse Center that Finger Lakes ReUse has operated since 2008, and the soon-to-open Ithaca ReUse Center, are convenient and necessary mechanisms to help avoid disposal and recycling in favor of reuse. We have a vibrant local reuse industry, and as a community often lead the way in sustainable materials management in large part thanks to the progressive planning and thoughtful investments made over the years by our Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division led by Barbara Eckstrom.

While reuse involves little energy in terms of fossil fuel, it has the profound social benefit of making affordable material available through labor-intensive, highly engaging work experiences across a wide range of skill sets, from cleaning, sorting, organizing, and repairing to complex problem solving and technical tasks such as computer refurbishing and building deconstruction. When seen in this light, the benefits generated by reuse extend beyond waste reduction and environment to include job skills training, education, collaboration, and interpersonal connections that serve to empower, educate, and bring people together.

A working environment where skills are shared and passed along contains the “regenerative” qualities that Naomi Klein discusses. Our prevailing system requires the mining of ores and smelting into the newest alloys, just to satisfy the latest consumer trend. This system, using equipment driven by “cheap” fossil fuel and casting off toxic by-products cannot be sustained or viewed as regenerative. Designers and manufacturers are beginning to make encouraging improvements, but there is still much to do.

In the meantime, we can all be involved. First, as consumers, we can do only what we can afford, which is limited in most cases, but we can still consider the quality and source of the item we purchase, how it was manufactured, and how long it will last. Second, we can donate our materials when we no longer have use for them to support the transformative and regenerative systems that will be necessary to bring our world into a healthy and vibrant future.

Naomi Klein argues that behavior change at the individual level is not the only or primary way to go – and I agree. Passing the responsibility (and expense) on to the consumer to “do the right thing” isn’t enough. The change needs to happen on a systemic and structural/policy level, with incentives to encourage businesses to make the responsible choices that will benefit everyone, now and in the future.

Diane Cohen & Jackie Doherty are employees of Finger Lakes ReUse, Inc. a non-profit organization which operates the Triphammer ReUse Center, Deconstruction & Salvage Services, the eCenter Computer Refurbishing program, the ReSET Job Training Program, and the Ithaca Fixers Collective. To stay up to date on the latest news with Finger Lakes ReUse, the upcoming Ithaca ReUse Center, volunteer opportunities, and other ways to become involved and supportive, please go to

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles