A shopper at the Goodwill Buy the Pound store in Gorham. Credit: Courtesy of Heather Steeves

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Brie Berry is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine. Cindy Isenhour is an associate professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

As Earth Day approaches, it’s hard not to feel powerless in the face of the global climate crisis. The threat is urgent and real: We’ve received ” code red” alerts and a ” final warning” from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These urgent alerts are important and powerful, but they can also feel overwhelming. It can seem like meaningful action only happens at the international scale. Here in Maine, however, we can lead the way on another kind of climate action — one that doesn’t get discussed much, but that offers environmental, social, and economic value in Maine and beyond: Mitigating climate change by participating in second-hand economies.

If buying, selling, lending, and gifting used consumer goods feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic in the face of a global climate crisis, consider this: Studies show that nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the production, distribution, use and disposal of consumer goods. These goods also make up about 75 percent of our waste stream — such that reuse can achieve waste reduction on a scale of 25 percent.

The most recent IPCC report makes a clear call for “demand-side reduction,” including changing consumption patterns, arguing that these actions are important but often overlooked. By using goods longer — extending their lifetimes through repair and reuse — we can reduce waste and demand for new product production (as well as all the associated materials use and emissions).  

As researchers with a strong interest in sustainable materials management and circular economies, we support reuse for its potential to contribute all kinds of value in Maine and beyond. For example, through a five-year research project on reuse economies in Maine, we’ve learned that second-hand economies not only have environmental and economic benefits, but they also contribute to social capital — the ability for communities to work together to achieve common goals. From helping people displaced by house fires to funding local educational programs, second-hand exchanges can be good for people and communities. We’ve also estimated that Mainers spend about $570 million each year on used goods generating jobs and important localized economic activity, and that the repair sector in Maine contributes approximately $214 million to the state.

Maine has a long history of supporting reuse — from the state’s adoption of the solid waste management hierarchy which serves as the basis for planning an integrated approach to solid waste management, to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Solid Waste Diversion Grant Program that helps kickstart projects designed to divert materials from disposal. The grant program prioritizes applications from municipal and regional organizations, as well as removal of organics from the waste stream. Proposals that move materials up the waste hierarchy, including reuse and repair, are welcomed, and both public and private entities are eligible to apply.  

Maine continues to plan for waste reduction and reuse, and its 2019 Materials Management Plan identified specific actions and strategies to reduce consumption (and therefore, waste) by  keeping materials in use longer, including an array of “community sharing” programs. Such programs not only reduce consumption of resources, but have an important equity component, ensuring that people who may not be able to afford expensive tools have access to use them as needed. Maine’s next plan update will be published in January 2024 and will include an analysis of current efforts to manage waste in alignment with our solid waste and food recovery hierarchies, as well as providing guidance and direction at the state and local level to help ensure further progress towards our statewide goals to reduce waste and mitigate climate change.

As we celebrate Earth Day this year, consider the value of reuse as a climate mitigation strategy, an economic development tool and a mechanism for helping Mainers in need. We urge policymakers to include demand-side reduction actions, like reuse, in the update of Maine’s Climate Action Plan.