In my previous article about how to cut cement board for use as a mosaic backer, I explained how I didn’t buy carbide-grit jigsaw blades for this because I re-used my worn-out wood blades for this once they became to dull for wood, and that it didn’t matter that cutting the cement board destroyed them completely. The worn-out wood blades would normally be thrown away as useless, so they are essentially free. This is an example of repurposed downcycling.
Repurposed Downcycling Versus Conventional Recycling
Recycling cans and bottles and plastics and paper usually means collecting old containers, transporting them to a plant, melting or breaking them down, re-manufacturing the raw material into new products and then transporting these finished goods to consumers. Each step of this supposedly “green” and sustainable process is actually much more energy intensive than it should be.
What this means is that conventional recycling doesn’t conserve nearly as many resources as when you can repurpose waste materials on site, even if that new purpose isn’t as important as the original purpose of the material.
For example, consider the re-use of a 32-ounce yogurt tub as a water container for rinsing paint brushes while working with acrylic paint. A container used to rinse paint brushes doesn’t need to be made from virgin plastic, which was what was required to make the yogurt tub. You could use a container to rinse brushes that was made from recycled plastics, old plastics that didn’t have to be certified to be contaminant free. However, if you can re-use the virgin plastic food container (a purpose requiring high-grade material) for a brush rinsing container (a purpose requiring lesser-grade material) you save all the energy and other resources required to produce one from recycled plastics.
Examples Of Products Replaced By Free Repurposed Materials
Here are just a few examples from my studios and steel and woodworking shops. The free repurposed material is in parentheses () following the commercial product being replaced:
- paper towels (old newspapers)
- shop rags (worn-out clothing cut into pieces)
- carbide-grit jigsaw blades (old dull blades made for cutting wood)
- rags for cleaning up thinset (plastic grocery bags)
- studio floor mats (flattened cardboard boxes)
- sorting bins for nails, screws and hardware (tin cans of uniform size in a cardboard box)
- small disposable paint containers for mixing (bottoms of milk and juice jugs cut down)
- plastic buckets with lids (plastic paint buckets)
- nuts, bolts, washers, screws (reclaimed hardware from old appliances)
Then there all the many different ways you can use discarded objects of metal, glass and wood as raw materials for sculpture…
Downcycling Is Different From Hording
As an artist, your most important resource is time. Your second most important resource is space. Saving large unsorted piles of mixed materials is an act of waste. It wastes your time, and it wastes your workspace, and it usually wastes the materials too eventually.
If the materials are unsorted or saved in quantities beyond what you use on a regular basis, then sooner or later it will be necessary to dispose of them all at once, even if it is after you are gone. Unused junk is unused junk. What a bizarre burden to live with. What a bizarre burden to leave for your loved ones to sort out!
Practical Tips For Downcycling
Here are some practical tips for saving materials for repurposed uses in the art studio:
- sort materials immediately or discard them.
- store materials in labeled containers.
- don’t save more than you use.
- don’t try to save everything, or even most of everything, or even some of everything.
- don’t store anything at the expense of your workspace.
- don’t spend more time salvaging materials than working on your art.
Repurposed Downcycling Also Saves Time, Labor and Money
Downcycling of waste materials for “lesser” purposes has other advantages than saving more resources than conventional recycling. Re-purposed materials save money because they are essentially free. Re-purposed materials also save time and labor. How? An example makes it instantly obvious: If you can cover the floor with old newspapers or flattened cardboard boxes, then you can paint the ceiling a lot faster without having to stress about every drop that falls.
Most manufacturing and maintenance processes can be done faster with sacrificial materials of some sort. Things like removable painter’s tape and paper patterns and disposable rags for cleaning up are obvious examples. When you use downcycled materials for these purposes, you can use more of them if needed without hesitation because they are free, and this allows you to focus on minimizing time and labor costs.