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Turning Trash Into Treasure: Repurposing Waste For The Greater Good

Photo courtesy of Jessica Reeder via Flickr

Humanity is producing a dangerous and growing amount of garbage — in fact, the world’s waste is expected to triple by 2100, and cost $375 billion a year by 2025 according to the World Bank.

Urban specialists agree that unless more effort is put into repurposing waste (or refurbishing it) and changing consumption patterns, there will be serious fiscal and environmental consequences.

While the larger, structural issues of growing garbage rates pose a serious challenge for future world leaders and thinkers, there are already many emerging ways that individuals can eliminate or repurpose waste in productive ways beyond even recycling. The best of such ideas may just help those in need at the same time.

Repurposing electronic waste

Smartphones, laptops, televisions, and even wearables tend to become outdated quickly as technology advances. Also called “e-waste,” old technology sometimes sits dusty and forgotten in basements and attics in spite of its inherent value.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”bTQ6xYq7CQIeMA56qhVhwlWd5X7fGumQ”]In 2012, of 3.4 million tons of e-waste, only 29.2 percent was recycled — the rest was trashed in landfills or incinerators, or sent abroad. Even recycling and reselling programs may not be using this waste to its fullest potential.

But what if your old technology could give power to those in need, instead of going back into the traditional cycle of consumption?

One way forgotten tech could be repurposed is highlighted in a 2014 study by IBM, which found that discarded batteries from laptops could help provide electricity to slums, or anyone off the electrical grid, cheaply and effectively.

For more ideas on how to repurpose and donate old electronics like smartphones, see our guide here.

Repurposing food waste

About 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten, and yet 800 million people worldwide don’t get enough to eat. The average American produces 10 times as much waste as a person in Southeast Asia, which is up 50 percent from the 1970s.

It’s certainly troubling that world hunger persists in spite of massive food waste, and fixing the problem on a large scale won’t be simple.

Luckily, some bright minds have come up with ways to either repurpose or eliminate food waste on a personal level. These include:

  • A device called the Food Cycler, which turns uneaten scraps into sterilized compost that can be reused as soil
  • 3D printed food, which innovators believe may allow persons to print food tailored exactly to their needs, reducing waste
  • Blue Apron delivery service, which mails users exactly what they need to prepare meals without excess.

For restaurants and businesses, there are also typically local “food rescue” organizations run by volunteers that recover edible but unsellable food products that would otherwise go straight to the dumpster.

Repurposing textile, paper, and plastic waste

For old clothes, those with excess can find creative ways to repurpose textiles for themselves, or others. This includes making quilts, scarves, hats, pillows, and more from old clothing, or donating it to charitable organizations instead of chucking it.

As for paper, which currently makes up 27 percent of municipal solid waste (more than any other material), reduction could make a big difference. One uniquely charitable business model is that of Earth Education Project, which repurposes paper waste into high-quality paper products in Nicaragua, providing education and income opportunity for local women.

One of the most problematic waste products is plastic, due to its inability to decompose. One business approaching this problem is the Plastic Bank, whose mission is to keep plastic out of the ocean by turning waste into a currency that allows those in poverty to exchange plastic waste for health, education, and 3D printing services.

Plastic collected is then used by corporations to reduce reliance on plastic production.

The takeaway

Some important actions are being taken to reduce waste of all types, while at the same time creating opportunity for others and reducing pollution.

Though the scale of such projects may be small right now, they are all key stepping stones towards further eliminating waste, poverty, and hunger in the world.

They say one man’s trash is another’s treasure — perhaps it’s about time we all took a look inside our trash cans and storage bins with a new and more creative set of eyes.

Want to help a worthy cause this season? Submit to our photo contest, nominate a cause, and invite your friends to vote to win $500 for your charity on December 26. 

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert