Repurposing: It's the New Recycling

January 2, 2013

Erich Burnett

Rosalie Eck places a binder onto a crowded shelf.
Photo credit: Yvette Chen

A painful reminder of Rosalie Eck’s first experience with the Recycled Products Co-op still hangs on the group’s office door high up in Wilder Hall. It’s a promotional poster that she created four years ago, copies of which ended up all over campus.

“People asked me what I made them out of, and I was so embarrassed,” remembers Eck, now a senior studio art major. She had printed them on stacks of brand-new paper. It’s a lesson she learned very quickly.

On a campus where recycling has been second nature for years, more homespun efforts to cut down on consumption contribute to the latest wave of environmentalism. Members of the Recycled Products Co-op dive for discarded paper, supplies, and other campus waste and repurpose it for a new wave of students to use. In some ways, it’s the school-supply counterpart to the Resource Conservation Team (RCT), which operates the campus’ Free Store—a sort of permanent garage sale of student clothing, housewares, and other assorted items cast off at the end of each semester.

Together, the two groups manage to make just about everything that’s old new again, turning Oberlin’s trash into treasure every day.

“I’m really proud of all we do, as well as the social-justice implications of it,” says Caroline Meister, a third-year student majoring in politics and environmental studies who claims membership in both the co-op and the RCT. “We give away a lot of stuff to those who need it, and it fosters a lot of compassion among our students.”

Discarding Wastefulness

The Recycled Products Co-op’s cramped office recalls an exploded OfficeMax circa 1992. There are stacks of outmoded floppy disks and CDs, and a shelving unit piled high with used binders of all sizes. The drawers on a series of artfully repainted file cabinets label the group’s bounty: “manila paper,” “bubble wrap,” “cardboard,” and “bags,” among other odds and ends. A recent donation from the local Democratic Party has resulted in a cache of paper and unused campaign stickers. Eck marvels at the new uses she might find for them.

If it all resembles a stockpile of worthlessness to the untrained eye, the co-op sees mountains of possibility in it.

“The next step is not recycling by putting things in a bin,” Eck says, “but by reusing things or by not buying new things if you don’t have to—not buying a new notebook if you can make one.”

And so every other Tuesday evening, Eck totes bins loaded with discarded materials to the group’s Craft Nights in the Science Center Atrium. There, they turn scrap paper into pocket-sized notebooks and transform CDs by the dozen into luminescent fish mobiles that will hang in the Science Center someday.

According to Eck, Craft Nights came about as a sort of rejection of the guilt that came along with students’ creative urges. “Lots of people in our craft group really like to make things, but they don’t want to feel like they’re being wasteful,” she says.

The key, as she sees it, is in transforming unwanted materials into products that are always in demand. So in addition to more fun and frivolous creations—see fish mobiles, above—the group has taken to fashioning notebooks from recycled paper collected from offices and bulletin boards around campus; the pages are collated, then bound for free by the college’s Printing Services department. Eck has also found a receptive market for multi-pocket binders made out of used manila folders.

Each Monday through Thursday evening, and Saturdays from 1-3, students are welcome to the basement of Asia House to peruse the RCT’s Free Store. There, an ever-rotating selection of clothing, shoes, books, appliances, and other items can be found—all of it free for the taking. The group’s various “Swap” events take place at the beginning and end of each semester and help keep the Free Store stocked.

“Our swaps have a huge impact,” says Meister, noting that the Fresh Swap held at the beginning of fall semester resulted in more than 1,000 items changing hands. “Without the swaps, all of that stuff would be thrown away.”

In ways minute and monumental, Oberlin’s penchant for what Eck calls “anti-consumerism” is evidenced everywhere—including increased membership in the Recycled Products Co-op this fall.

“We’re seeing more people than we’ve had in recent years, and that allows us to do more than we used to,” she says. It also introduces a conundrum they’ve begun to ponder this year: How will they create new crafts once there’s no waste left to create them with?

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