Don’t Trash the Trash
“Trash” has such a negative sound (and smell), but Washington D.C.–based designer Beth Singer thinks of it by another name: “scrap.” She has launched “Wrap With Scrap,” a means to repurpose reusable scrap. In addition to her design practice (which also launched a design thinking initiative for grade-school kids), Singer and her husband teach packaging to children grades 1-6. They cover the environmental impact of the discipline and also the way it helps keeps things organized and clean, and helps create desire among consumers.
“At the end of the lesson, we challenge the kids to design their own packages for a holiday gift from the mountains of recycled and gently used materials we bring in,” she says.
As Singer reports, “the kids’ creativity and brains catch fire, and the room of 60 first graders becomes a whirlwind of innovation.” As follow-up, Singer and her husband send notes home to parents explaining the lesson and why wrapping with scrap is one easy way to practice environmental stewardship. (Meanwhile, they also offer the workshops for adults at local businesses and nonprofits in the DC and Northern Virginia area … but with wine and snacks.)
I recently asked Singer to discuss the strategy and goals of this lesson in sustainability.
I think many of us already wrap with or recycle materials for wrapping paper. How does your initiative differ from using, say, newspaper? It’s thinking about all the items we throw in the trash in an entirely new way and giving them a new purpose—a purpose that will make someone smile or even giggle with delight. If it’s not gooey or mushy with food or germs, why not give your trash a new life? A toilet paper roll can become a receptacle for shredded paper fireworks as the focal point on top of a box; mesh from lemon bags complete a package as a neat bowtie; foil candy wrappers (my favorite) become flower petals when married with old paper cupcake holders. Retraining your brain to think about materials like buttons, wine corks, paper bags and parts from old board games no longer used in new ways has so many advantages.
What do you mean by “retraining the brain”? If consistently practiced, wrapping with scrap can help your brain grow new synapses. I read in Keep Your Brain Alive by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin that if you change a particular habit a number of times, your brain creates new neuro-pathways, and eventually stops defaulting to the old route, preferring the new one instead. Since I’ve been wrapping with scrap, even before I use an object for its original purpose, I am thinking about how to reuse it. The very act of reimagining what my brain previously saw as trash—that’s now my “innovation practice.”
And creativity boosts confidence. Innovation is messy business, and it takes practice to feel comfortable taking risks, turning things upside-down and inside-out, and moving relentlessly forward. On one of NPR’s Note to Self podcast series, host Manoush Zomorodi states that in a recent study, 77% of CEOs say they find it difficult to hire talent with the creativity and innovation skills their companies need.
So why aren’t we nurturing innovation skills in our children at home? This is really a no-brainer, in my opinion. Our planet needs all the inventive and original thinkers we can produce to address our huge challenges—from climate change to poverty, from transportation to substance abuse. If we can get kids to feel comfortable testing their imaginations and looking at “what is” in new ways, I believe this is a critical pathway to creating a better world on a multitude of levels.
What has been the result to date? Not measurable yet, but lots of positive feedback, changed minds, and deep enthusiasm for it.
What have you learned about sustainability—and disrupting old habits? This is a hard one because wrapping with scrap is not a perfect solution. But it has a lot of the right ingredients: If we stop buying wrapping paper, we will cut down on the 60 million trees we need each year to manufacture wrapping paper products. We stop dumping over 4 million tons of waste in the landfills just from wrapping paper products. Most wrapping paper cannot be recycled because of the heavy ink coverage and special coatings and metallics. We save ourselves tons of money—we spend over $7 billion each year in wrapping paper products.
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