Maine’s reuse economy

Maine’s vibrant secondhand economy and culture of reuse are the focus of research led by Cynthia Isenhour, a University of Maine professor of anthropology and climate change. Her three-year, multidisciplinary project, as well as a digital ethnography field school and related work within the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions look into the economic, environmental and social benefits of repairing, selling and buying used goods.


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Cindy Isenhour:
Let’s choose an object. A toaster, let’s say. We can make toasters more efficiently. We can make them so they use less energy. We can make them with thinner metal so that they’re less extractive.

The reality is, as long as we’re buying more and more toasters each year, we’re typically cannibalizing the gains of that efficiency.

If you have a toaster already and it’s perfectly usable ‑‑ maybe it’s not the most fashionable stainless steel ‑‑ but if it’s usable, chances are, the benefits of using that longer far outweigh the environmental benefits of replacement.

The reuse company is a broad phenomenon. It includes things like yard sales. It would also include things like putting something at your curb, or people who look in dumpsters behind stores for things that could be reused — junkyards and auto salvage, architectural salvage, Facebook swaps, eBay.

We typically think about it as goods that are exchanged in their original form, not modified. That can be through gifts, swap, barter. It can be through a number of different mechanisms.

When we looked at all the states, we found that Maine was almost always in the top 10 strongest reuse economies. This is measured as the number of reuse establishments relative to total establishments.

There’s clearly something happening here. It’s something that most Mainers can relate very easily to, that everybody has experienced with the reuse economy, and has fairly favorable attitudes towards it.

Woman 1:
Hospital lunch. Two parts.

Woman 2:
Sweater’s on the house because you were cold.

Woman 1:
Thank you.

Woman 2:
And you’re a repeat customer.

Woman 1:

Woman 2:
Take a stuffed animal for your baby daughter on the way out.

Cindy Isenhour:
Everybody knows this idea that there’s a Yankee ingenuity and a thrift culture here. I think that those types of answers are really easy. I think the answers are a little bit more complex. A lot of people think that this is a important aspect of community building.

People don’t necessarily want to buy from box stores that don’t know us from our neighbors and our friends. The idea of buying something from someone that you can give them a little bit of money, and you can get something for cheaper than you would have been able to get otherwise, is actually appealing to a lot of folks.

Woman 3:
I enjoy meeting new people. I like to not have things go to waste. The fact that someone else can use something that I don’t need anymore — I like knowing that it can go to a good home, essentially. I enjoy giving back to the community. I like to meet the people in the community.

Cindy Isenhour:
There’s a perception that younger people are not interested in reuse. That’s not necessarily true. They are very interested, but they’re participating through different platforms. They are much more likely to participate via online transactions, so through Facebook Marketplace, through Craigslist, through Uncle Henry’s.

They tend to be more interested in a different set of products. While some things like China and dishware were once very popular collectibles among the older generations, it’s not so much of interest to younger people.

Instead what we find is if you look over here, they have all these clothes. We’re finding that young people are much more likely to focus on clothing. It’s one of the key sectors that folks in their 20s and 30s are focused on, is sorting through big piles of clothing like this, looking particularly for vintage clothing.

Field school was designed primarily to teach students that are interested in the social sciences, the ethnographic method, which basically just means how to do ethical, but also robust ethnographic fieldwork. Ethnographic means the writing of culture.

Man 1:
My grandma had a whole house full, actually, she had a store, full of old Coke bottles and old wooden boxes. I’d go, “Ah, I’d like to have a nickel if one of them I broke off. You’re talking $40 apiece, right?”

Cindy Isenhour:
Typically, our methods are qualitative. We might understand from a survey or from some economic analyses that certain groups of people are more likely to participate in reuse, but we don’t understand why.

That’s where a good qualitative method comes in, is that we can get out, meet nice people, and have a chance to talk to them and find out, “OK, why are you participating, and what does this mean to you?”

The students got to practice doing interviews, getting consent forms out to folks. Then what do we do with the data once we have it?

Woman 4:
We kept hearing this narrative of care for people, care for the community, care for objects, and a supportive social network is what was underlying and supporting people’s participation in reuse.

Cindy Isenhour:
In a robust reuse company, we’re going to get gains in both environmental and economic realms. That’s important not only for households and the economy as a whole, but also for our municipalities who pay an absolutely unbelievable amount of money to throw away the stuff that we don’t use anymore.

Woman 5:
When someone comes and finds something that they like, they get a lot of personal satisfaction with that find through the treasure hunt, the idea of caring for something and keeping it out of the landfill.

There are a lot of different reasons that people participate in these types of sales. Yes, what they don’t oftentimes realize is that there are real societal benefits.