In this 2016 file photo, a trailer is shown covered in clothes during Orrington's Endless Yard Sale. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

There’s no question: Mainers are thrifty.

University of Maine researchers have been studying that tendency and the reuse economy built around it in order to learn how to make it more sustainable.

Cindy Isenhour, associate professor of Anthropology and Climate Change at the University of Maine, started thinking about reuse when she moved to Maine in 2013. She had just finished her Ph.D. in Kentucky after living in a number of other places, including Colorado, Ohio and Sweden. She noticed that Mainers treat thrifted, upcycled and reused items differently than in other places she had lived.

“Some people talk about a stigma associated with reuse,” Isenhour said. “It’s not something you would necessarily mention or brag about. I noticed that when I moved here when I complimented someone, it’s almost a source of pride to have found a hidden treasure secondhand.”

Isenhour also noticed a proliferation of reuse-based institutions, like thrift stores and repair shops.

“It’s really hard to miss it if you’re looking,” Isenhour said. “I used to live in Winterport, and driving between there and Camden, there are like 84 stores or repair shops or boat builders that have some part in the reuse economy.”

Isenhour is an anthropologist by training. Her previous research focused on sustainable systems of consumption and production. She said that most of her research about reuse had looked at how to get such programs started, without acknowledging or studying places like Maine where the practice was already part of the cultural fabric. In fact, there wasn’t much research out there about reuse economies in general, much less in Maine specifically.

In 2017, Isenhour received National Science Foundation funding to research Maine’s reuse economy in a project titled Resourceful ME. She formed a team of experts from around the university with specialties in economics, environmental policy and anthropology to figure out what makes Maine’s culture of reuse so special — and how to harness it to achieve sustainability goals.

The research

The research team approached the topic from a variety of angles. First, they looked at the history of reuse in Maine in order to better understand it.

“We assumed there was a robust history of thrift and reuse in Maine and then we found evidence to support our hunch, some of which was in memoirs, old magazines, historical newspapers and in unexpected places, like cozy mystery novels set in Maine,” Jen Bonnet, social sciences and humanities librarian at UMaine’s Fogler Library, said.

The group also conducted surveys at more than 150 businesses. Brieanne Berry, graduate research assistant at the University of Maine, joined the team to study the social aspect of the reuse economy. She became interested in the topic when she volunteered in the Peace Corps in Mali, where the reuse sector was also extremely vibrant.

“People would reuse old inner tubes from tires as bungee cords. If you bought street food, they’d serve it in an old kid’s homework assignment. That placed an idea in my mind that simmered,” Berry said.

She noticed the same thing that Isenhour had noticed when she first moved to Maine.

“You can’t drive 15 feet in the summer without seeing yard sale signs,” Berry said. “People haven’t really studied what the reuse economy means to the social fabric of communities. Oftentimes when we think of value we think of just money, but a lot of it is just allowing people to connect to each other. People are building trust in their communities and helping people who need help.”

People peruse the wares during a 2016 yard sale in Orrington. Credit: BDN file

Berry said her findings show that Maine’s reuse economy builds “social capital,” or trust within communities, which can have other positive effects, such as safer streets, better educational outcomes and relationships with other people, Berry said. 

Finally, the Resourceful ME looked at demographic and economic data about reuse — how many thrift stores a place has, for example, or where they are located — to see how Maine compared to other states.

“We didn’t find that Maine is the strongest [reuse economy in the country], but we did find that in terms of employment and formal businesses, Maine is really strong and constantly so. It has a pretty persistently strong reuse economy that’s right up there in the top 10 of the nation by a number of measures,” Berry said.

Though Maine wasn’t at the top of the reuse economy, it had some surprising and unique characteristics. Isenhour said that they found that Maine’s reuse economy is not generated by economic recessions, like they are in some other parts of the country.

Berry added that the data doesn’t yet account for more informal, pop-up reuse establishments, like yard sales.

“There’s a whole lot of little stuff going on that’s not getting measured in those different metrics so we think we’re really under counting what we have in Maine, and probably in the rest of the country, too,” Berry said. “Maine is very rich in these little informal establishments that seem to come and go.”

Berry said that the team’s findings about labor in Maine were also surprising, in that most of the people who are driving the reuse economy are “in their 70s, 80s and 90s.” These workers have not been able to find replacements in the upcoming generation either. This could be due to a number of factors, from thrift store volunteer hours taking place during the normal work day to the fact that many young people use online marketplaces to buy and sell used items.

“I think there’s a lot of room to keep studying and figure out what some solutions might be,” Berry said.

The future

Isenhour and her team want to make sure that the Mainers who have made the reuse economy so vibrant in the first place aren’t left out of any policies that try to enhance and formalize this path toward sustainability. For example, Isenhour said, when recycling markets were formalized in places like Brazil and India, the garbage pickers that made their livelihoods out of connecting used goods with the people who wanted them were suddenly cut out of the market as recycled goods became privatized.

As reuse becomes a bigger part of sustainability policy, she doesn’t want the same thing to happen in Maine.

Isenhour said that there is also a lot of potential for future research as well.

“One of the blind spots in our research that I hope people will do more and more of is life cycle analysis,” Isenhour said. “You can figure out what are the environmental and social benefits of reusing a product relative to buying a new one. That’s a key area for future research.”

A 2017 Cornville yard sale. Credit: BDN file photo

Their goal is to give something to policymakers that will help them make better policies around reuse. For example, she hopes that Maine’s policymakers will avoid some of the missteps that have been made around recycling policy.

“Development projects, whether they’re finance or reforestation, almost always work better if they are consistent with the culture that’s already in place,” Isenhour said. “Policymakers that are concerned about sustainability are rapidly moving toward reuse, [but] these are things that we need to plan for in advance versus things we need to plan for later.”

In the past, lack of planning hasn’t benefited policy.

“Policymakers went head over heels into recycling and didn’t think fully through the implications. In that case we ended up with our recyclables shipped to places where there wasn’t a strong capacity to deal well with them,”  Isenhour said.