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Zero Waste Crafting

September 8, 2019

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.







Go digital


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. 







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. 







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