Grappling with Waste and Value

Words: Amelia Bauerly
ART: Rebecca Giordano

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When you think about issues like waste and overconsumption, how does it make you feel?

Chances are, you feel bad about it. At least that’s how I felt. Waste and consumption are giant problems, deeply ingrained in our culture. Facing them head on makes me feel shame, guilt and an almost overwhelming sense of helplessness.

But what if, instead of just getting overwhelmed and giving up, we tried to do something to tackle waste and consumption in our own, small corner of the world? What might that look like? As a team of designers, artists, and strategists interested in solving 'wicked,' real-world problems, these were the questions we asked ourselves.

Peeling apart the roots of these complicated issues of waste and consumption, we had our own ‘lightbulb’ moment. We realized one of the reasons waste and overconsumption persist is that our understanding of value has shifted. Because many things are convenient to access, inexpensive to buy and easy to get rid of, we’ve lost any understanding of their real cost – or their real worth.

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So, what if we created a conversation about value within our community? Would this conversation help jumpstart the process of redefining worth in our lives?

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To test this theory out, we created a space within our community where people can share goods. We called it the Worth SHARE Space. If people have things they no longer need, they can drop them off. If people have things they need, they can take them from what’s available. For free.

The only catch? People dropping off items are asked to fill out a tag detailing why they bought the item, and why they are getting rid of it.

Our hope is that this act of reflection might wedge open a space for us to examine more deeply the question of ‘why we buy the things we buy’. Further, for people receiving items, reading through the story of the item’s past life might create space for connecting with the larger community, and for reimagining the ‘worth’ of our used goods.

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The image above includes written reactions from people who have used the space. Most are simple summaries of what was taken and why, but some are bullets of truth, cutting through the pretenses we present to the world and making plain our desire to connect with others and make meaning of our lives.

What’s it worth?

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Amelia Bauerly is a UX Designer living and working in North Portland. As a designer, she’s interested in using participatory design methods to tackle issues of equity in education.