Zero Waste Crafting
Eliminating, substituting and/or reducing the waste from our artistic and crafty endeavours.
As a kid, I enjoyed arts and crafts. The earliest piece of artwork I recall making was in kindergarten, and it is the most Malaysian thing ever: a drawing of a durian, covered with glitter.
Something like this, but smothered in lots and lots of unnecessary glitter
I continue to enjoy working with my hands well into adulthood, and have branched into many other areas of craft: painting, sewing, jewellery making, and very briefly once, soap making.
While art is a worthwhile endeavour in and of itself (and is the very essence of being human, as some would argue), there’s no denying that it can also generate a lot of unnecessary waste.
So if you’re artistic but you also want to reduce your waste from all the art projects you inevitably have going on at all times, below are some ways to go about it.
(If you’re more of a DIY handyman rather than an artsy fartsy person, check out Zero Waste Home Improvement.)
Before we go into specific arts and crafts categories, here are a few general principles that apply to all:
The painful, but ultimately irrelevant, truth.
We're not doing it for the financial aspects, that's for sure!
What are you going to make, and what purpose will it serve? To be fair, art need not be utilitarian, because beauty itself is a worthy purpose, but as much as possible, have a good reason as to why you’re making this piece of art or craft.
For example, I usually only whip out my arts and crafts tools when I am actually in need of something, whether it’s a new pouch I want to sew to hold all my cords, or a necklace I want to gift to a friend for her birthday. That way, I know my product won’t be uselessly pretty, but also well-used.
Secondly, think about the end of your piece’s life - is it salvageable and can it find a second life with another purpose, or as materials for something else? Following my previous examples, at the end of the life of the pouch, I can reuse the fabric to sew other things use it as a washcloth. At the end of the life of the necklace (or if the friend hated it and returned it to me!), I could disassemble the chain and pendant and make new jewellery out of both.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Will you actually use this? Is this going to be utilised or displayed or gifted? Or will it just sit there collecting dust?
After you no longer want it, can it be disassembled and recycled properly? Or is it just one big gooey mess that will have to be sent to the landfill?
Try your best to buy just enough materials without too much of an excess (unless you have plans for the excess stuff too!). If you have any choice or control whatsoever, always opt for materials that are inherently reusable or recyclable. Crafts made out of paper are easily recyclable, but a piece of art made out of plastic glued together to fabric and metal bits will be much more difficult to reuse or recycle.
In addition choose materials that are versatile and multipurpose, so that it can be of use beyond just this one art project. Paint is a classic example of being multipurpose - you can use it to make a painting, or to paint a wood project, or to paint your house!
Check first to see if you can borrow rather than purchase tools, especially if the tools are for a one-time project. If it’s a craft that you will be pursuing seriously, then invest in tools that will last a long time and give them the proper care. And if you already have the tools, share them with other artsy & crafty friends!
Now we can dive into specific arts and crafts categories, all with their own peculiarities.
This is the absolute best way to go zero waste: make the switch to digital painting, and eliminate the need for canvases, paints, brushes, palettes, sponges and every other tool required for painting with watercolours, gouache or oil. All of these can be imitated digitally on an electronic drawing pad, an appropriate software and a good stylus. To see what you can do with digital painting, check out some of the ones I've made.
I myself only need my iPad, the Procreate app and an Apple Pencil to make countless artwork. And if I did a terrible job and want to destroy it out of shame, I click the delete button and the only thing that’s filled up is the digital trash can on my computer. No waste is generated whatsoever.
Minimise, then maximise
The above having been said, some people don’t want to switch to digital, because it is definitely not the same as painting the traditional way, requiring different sets of skills and producing different kinds of experiences.
In this case, minimise the things you need to produce a spectacular artwork: have the right amount of brushes and the right amount of paint, and try not to go overboard in hoarding materials you may or may not even use. When possible, try to buy eco-friendly products that are made well and are designed to be reused or recycled.
Then, maximise the heck out of everything you have. Make your brushes last, squeeze out every last bit of paint and use that same easel stand until you die. Even better, hand it off to your equally artistic children and grandchildren for continued use.
SEWING, QUILTING, & OTHER SIMILAR CRAFTS
Invest in a good, repairable machine
Don’t do what I did, which was to buy a cheap sewing machine that broke within the first 2 years of use, and couldn’t be repaired because it was designed to be disposed. Instead, buy from a reputable brand with a good warranty, available spare parts and repair services. A sewing machine can and should last for generations.
Design for low waste and eventual disassembly
A good design will incorporate quality material (that will not fray or flake and get easily damaged) and cuts that make the most of the fabric without generating too much fabric scraps that are too small to be useful. A well-designed item should also be easy to disassemble at the end of its life, so that the fabric and other bits (such as metal zippers or buttons) can easily be reused and given another life.
Repurpose or reuse material
Fabric lends itself very well to being reused over and over, and many t-shirts and jeans find new life as aprons, pouches and even cloth pantyliners (which is what yours truly does!). There are endless possibilities when you have a sewing machine and fabric on hand - let your creativity juices flow, this is after all the whole point of crafting!
Buy materials wisely
Jewellery bits are so pretty and so small, and before you know it, you find yourself buying everything you see. After all, they don’ take up too much space and all those colourful beads and twinkling gems are so easy on the eyes. Resist the temptation and only buy what your project needs. Make plans for excess material, and if they remain unused, gift them to another jeweller who can make something out of them!
Design for disassembly
Avoid making pieces of jewellery that are welded and stuck together for eternity. Think of them as lego pieces and allow for the different parts (the chain, the pendant, the beads, etc) to be taken apart at the end and be used to make an entirely new piece.
SCRAPBOOKING, JOURNALING & OTHER PAPER CRAFTS
Create with eventual recycling in mind
Paper lends itself well to recycling, which is great, but not if it’s glued and melded together with other non-recyclable materials like plastic or mixed paper or other sticky bits. Take care to design your paper crafts such that they can be disassembled and properly recycled at the end of its life.
No to stickers, yes to Japanese washi tapes
Stickers are sadly not recyclable, but even worse, they actually disrupt the recycling process by getting stuck in the recycling equipment! (Same is true for sticky notes) So ditch the stickers, and instead join the Japanese washi tape craze. These tapes (the original, thin, translucent ones - not the plasticky, double-sided-tape-masquerading-as-washi-tape ones) are biodegradable, recyclable and oh so pretty!
Join a group or create one
Woodworking is equipment intensive, and before you know it, you would’ve spent hundreds on equipment. Avoid this and instead join or start a woodworking group where you pool your tools together and create a lending library! This way, your wood scrap can also be piled together, and someone will know what to do with them. These groups already exist, check out Malaysian Woodworkers Association and Kerja Kayu.
As with previous crafts, a well-designed item can do wonders in minimising waste. Design your project so that it produces the least amount of scrap wood when cutting pieces, design it to last a very long time, and design for easy disassembly at the end of its life.
Use up scrap wood and sawdust
There will inevitably be wood scraps resulting from your project - get creative on how to properly use them up! Make coasters, keychains, trays or other small projects. You don’t have to make pretty things either - use up the scrap wood to make molds or spacers for other projects. As for the sawdust, find a gardener or someone who does compost - like me! I for one am always in need of sawdust for my compost toilet.
Note: We are now entering categories that I am not entirely familiar with, so the tips may be a little general and not as useful. If you dabble in these crafts and have tips to share, do let me know!
Soap bars by nature is waste-free: there are no icky by-products from making soap and the soap itself gets used up and dissolves down your drain. The only waste to come out of this is packaging waste, particularly if you’re in the business of making liquid soap which needs to be stored in something.
If you’re making soap for yourself, then eliminate the need for packaging, and if necessary, use reusable containers you already have on hand. After all, the soap is only going to as far as your kitchen and bathroom.
However, if you’re selling soap, then consider selling them ‘naked’, i.e. without packaging. Many artisan soap stores already do this, or at least offer their customers the option of buying without packaging. If the soap you’re selling is in liquid form, consider selling them in glass bottles that your customers can bring back with them to fill up, or other types of easily reusable and recyclable container. Encourage your customers to bring their own bottles, and reward them for it with points or soap cutoffs!
Use natural and biodegradable ingredients
I wasn’t exactly accurate when I said soap doesn’t produce waste. While the soap physically disappears and there’s nothing to throw away at the end of it all, the truth of the matter is that ‘waste’ is being produced every time the soap is used, and that waste goes down your drain in the form of grey water.
A good rule of thumb is to ensure that your soap water is something you’d be comfortable showering onto your favourite plant. Avoid using unnecessary nasty chemicals and keep the ingredients natural and biodegradable.
(Chances are, the reason you’re even making your own soap is because you are unhappy with the stuff they put into conventional store-bought soap, therefore you most likely don’t need to be told this! Most soap artisans start out wanting to make soap for their own family due to skin issues or allergic reactions, and then expand out to selling to others looking for similar solutions. Here are two of such local soap artisans: Kinder Soaps and Lave Republic.
SCULPTING, GLASS-MAKING, POTTERY & OTHER SIMILAR CRAFTS
Design well and with the end in mind
Sculptures are typically made of metal, ceramics, wood, clay or even rocks, all of which are inherently recoverable and reusable.Nowadays, however, you can sculpt out of pretty much anything you deem fit: plastics, bars of soap, fruits, etc.
Similarly, glass is inherently recyclable - it is made of sand and can be re-melted to take on different shapes.
As much as possible, design your piece in a way that keeps the recoverable and reusable nature of the materials. Avoid mixing or fusing with non-recyclable materials, which will render the piece unfit for reuse and destined for the landfill. If you must include non-recyclable materials to express yourself, then do so with disassembly in mind. Make it easy to take apart and separate the different materials at the end of that piece’s life. Allow your art piece to take another form and a second chance at life.
Minimise, then maximise
Tools are pretty essential in these types of craft - you’ll need carving tools, sponges, brushes, pottery wheels, and in the case of glass-making, blowpipes and red hot furnace.
As much as possible, minimise the things you need to make your art. Get together with like-minded artistic friends and share a space and a suite of tools between you. Or simply join an existing group. When possible, buy secondhand, and always buy quality goods so you don’t have to keep buying the same tools over and over.
Then, maximise the heck out of everything you have. Be creative with how you use tools you already have, take proper care of them and make them last. Make good use of your material of choice and use every last inch of them. Use cast-offs or scraps as a base for other, smaller projects.
Did I miss out on any craft? Hopefully not, but let me know in the comments if I have and I will try to remedy that.
In the meantime, happy creating in a low-waste way! Also, if you're an expert on any of the above crafts and have your own tips to share on eliminating or reducing the waste that comes out of it, do share in the comments below!
RATE YOURSELF: ARTS & CRAFTS
Achievement Award: Create with purpose, buy just the right amount, buy to last and design your piece with the end of life in mind!
Points For Effort: Make use of the excess material you have, or donate to those who can put them to good use.
Um, Maybe Not: Please, art and creativity should be free of such unartistic worries! That’s okay, continue as you do, and find some other waste to eliminate! Check out other recommendations here.