Becoming Makers: Living From the Waste Stream

16 Dec

The nature of today’s society in America is very much based around consumerism. The ubiquity of advertisements — on billboards, on television, on the radio, on the internet, in magazines and newspapers, etc. — makes it clear that, as Wendy Tremayne put it, “the entire world is for sale.” Consumerism is deeply imbedded in the systems that run our country and the cultural expectations that give a commonly accepted definition of success. In these cases and so many others money drives the decisions that affect how our country is run and the vision we have for how we fit into this American life. The “American dream” of today is much the same as it was in past generations: a person’s success is measured by how much money they can earn, and, indirectly, what they can afford to buy.

As a student studying studio art, I can’t help but think of a visual representation of consumerism that struck me. The Beehive Design Collective of Machias, Maine combines activism with art, using intricate posters as teaching tools to spread awareness about various issues. In one of their newest posters, The True Cost of Coal[1] (pictured below), where they explore the causes and painful realities of mountaintop removal, consumerism is a key factor in the demand for coal. The image shows an ominous black hole, no doubt symbolizing climate change, with dollar signs from big banks feeding the swirling clouds. Beneath, among other things, is a big mall selling goods that are designed to appear “green”, but in reality are still creating mass amounts of waste, polluting the land, and creating a high demand for coal. The society we live in – one that establishes the expectation that living cannot occur without buying – is beneficial to no one except manufacturers. Those who manufacture goods in an unsustainable way are contributing to a problem that affects everyone on earth, regardless of financial standing: climate change.


Stepping away from the big picture and into the shoes of an American consumer, it often seems like buying is the only option, whether it be for food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. Bringing the voice of experience, Wendy Tremayne was able to affirm that living off-grid and from “waste” primarily is possible. Her experiences with remaking clothes, growing food, creating medicines from readily available plants, and creating other innovative alternatives to buying things were very inspiring to hear. The kinds of necessary and useful goods and gadgets Wendy and her partner were able to produce were extraordinary. Until I was able to glimpse into their life and how they built it, I hadn’t been able to picture a life that succeeded in being truly sustainable without feeding into consumer culture.

One of the most accessible projects Wendy had organized was a clothing swap, free and open to the public. I have organized clothing swaps with my friends in the past, mostly for the sake of saving money while getting rid of old clothes. What I had never realized is that in the United States only 15% of clothing is donated.[2] This is shocking when we take into account that 95% of textiles can be recycled. 85% of clothing is thrown into the landfill, which comes to be about 21 billion pounds. In France, however, a mere 8% of clothing ends up in the landfill. This is the impact of charity organizations that collect and re-sell clothing as well as the French government, which passed a law in 2008 requiring retailers to provide an alternative to throwing old products into the waste stream.[3] This is one of many ways we can reduce waste drastically, save money, and take back power from major manufacturers.

The effects consumerism has on our society and our environment are numerous and serious. Continuously buying and disposing of resources perpetuates a system of instability and waste. If we can find a way to consume only what we create, and create only from the consumed, we can live a truly sustainable life. This theme was demonstrated by William McDonough in his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things.[4] In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough promotes the idea of the “upcycle”: seeking a life of abundance by manufacturing in ways that improve the environment. This vision of an abundant, sustainable life is what led Wendy to seek such a life. Feeding into the system of consumerism is inevitable only if you refuse to question what it means to be a consumer and a creator.

-Claire Horne, ’17

Claire is an undeclared First year interested in pursuing a major in Studio Art. She was born in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Appleton, Maine.

[1] Full size image available at True Cost of Coal. Digital image. Beehive Design Collective. N.p., n.d. Web.

[2] “Miller Waste Mills, Inc.” Miller Waste Mills Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013

[3] Kamila. “France Reigns Supreme in the Recycling of Textiles.” Magnifeco: The Digital Source For Eco-fashion and Sustainable Living, 18 May 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

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