Reimagine waste: Creative perspectives

Photo submitted by Jen Dolan.

Following Earth Week, the 51st Earth Day, and my 45th birthday, I had an idea for a series of articles that we are launching this week, called “reimagine waste.” I spent my birthday, April 22nd, preparing my Garden Circle raised beds and working on glass fusing projects with my microwave kiln.

I got into both hobbies with some ecology goals in mind. Growing my own organic food that gets watered with water from our rain barrel, fertilized with both compost from my heap and a regionally produced plant food made from fish waste, provides me with healthy activity and food while lessening my carbon footprint.

When I bought my first microwave kiln, the aim was always to one day use it for upcycling glass, mostly glass from containers that are much too small to actually be recycled. The recycling sorting facility where recyclables from my area wind up starts the sorting processing on grates with wholes that are around 2.5 x 2.5 inches. Very small jars, such as those that pimentos and baby food come in, fall through and wind up going to the landfill.

As artistic as I am, I have always prioritized making functional pieces. So while I have mainly made jewelry with COE 90 glass in my kiln, I have always planned on repurposing broken glass or glass containers that might not otherwise be recycled, and one of the things I plan on making is glass fishing sinkers to be part of the effort towards “getting the lead out” of our waterways. Small goals toward a lofty pursuit.

I count myself among many artists from around the world that are looking to waste materials as building blocks for art. While I still splurge on buying art supplies, focusing my purchases on greener alternatives such as refillable alcohol ink markers and papers made with post consumer recycled material and renewable energy, I have also turned my attention to reusing foam packing material and newspapers to create art. For many years, I coordinated kids crafting activities that make use of plastic bottles, cereal boxes, oatmeal canisters… you name it, in an effort to keep costs low and reuse items that might otherwise end up in a landfill. If you have a bird feeder in your yard that is made from a plastic bottle, I might have had something to do with that.

So many artists, either due to being financially strapped or because of their own ecological ethos, have turned to trash to create treasure. But what if by doing this we can inspire others to embrace a seemingly simple solution to the wicked problem of climate change? What if we all could reimagine waste materials of various types as valuable resources? Of course there are visionaries who already do, but we need these ideas to reach more people who will do the same, and rebuild jobs and infrastructure by doing so.

What if the carbon that is released into the atmosphere by car exhaust were turned into the concrete to build new roads? It is totally within our reach. You can read about that in Will Hascall’s article this week.

What if local construction companies were able to collect, compress, and reuse polystyrene packaging as insulation in their building projects? What if we could use some of the most problematic materials to wind up in landfills to grow food instead? What if we could capture the gasses that come from landfills to power our homes, cars, and more? All of this is within the realm of possibility and will be discussed in future articles.

In the aftermath of this pandemic are the vacated buildings and unemployment from industry that did not survive. There is the waste from so many disposable items that became so necessary in curbing the spread of COVID. It is time to rebuild, and in the rebuilding process, we must see each vacant building, each person ready to work, and each piece of waste in our landfills as holding the potential for this tremendous rebuild of an economy and infrastructure.

Reimagine waste. It is more than a series of articles; this is a call to action. We at Middle Wisconsin hope that by bringing you this series, we may inspire the innovation our world so badly needs.