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PODCAST: Talkin’ Trash with Mary Elizabeth Cantú of Spare Parts

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mary elizabeth cantú of spare parts
Mary Elizabeth Cantú of Spare Parts. Image: Greg Harman

In Episode 21 of the Deceleration podcast, we offer critical conversation with the founder of San Antonio’s only center for creative reuse.

Marisol Cortez

In another life, I tell Mary Elizabeth Cantú, founder and director of Spare Parts Center for Creative Reuse, I studied waste. We’ve just finished a quick tour of their sunny new brick-and-mortar storefront, just recently opened on San Antonio’s northeast side, and we’re sitting together in the little office nook she’s carved from one corner of the space. Her desk, like the shelves and walls leaning in around us, are full of colorful objects living their best second- or third- or fourth-hand lives. No cardboard left behind, says one student-drawn placard hanging on the wall, beneath a free-hand rendition of the tri-arrow recycling symbol.

Listen in:

What I don’t tell Cantú is what an understatement it is to say I studied waste. In fact, I once made an academic career out of a ravenous drive to understand how our ideas about waste—specifically excrement, to put it delicately—shape what we actually do with it environmentally. In the case of poop, what interested me is how we don’t like to think about it, and how cultural norms of shame and disgust have informed (and been informed by) a water-based disposal system that seeks to flush waste “out of sight, out of mind.” The Materiality of Disappearance, I was going to call the book version of my dissertation, meaning: We only think waste goes away, if we have that privilege; in reality, we dispatch it to watersheds or communities themselves deemed disposable.

Viewed through the lens of waste, power has everything to do with who has the luxury of flushing and who bears responsibility for what gets flushed. 

Laugh (or gag) all you want, but waste is good to think with, as I’m reminded in my conversation with Cantú, who founded Spare Parts in 2010 as a means of rerouting landfill-bound materials to supply-starved public school teachers like she once was. Waste is good for thinking about how we construct categories of value and valuelessness, and how objects themselves move in and out of those categories over time. It’s good for making visible what usually remains invisible—the global production networks that design objects for disposability; the linearity of capitalist production itself, which rather than reincorporating its byproducts, extracts non-renewable resources from the earth and converts them, via extracted human labor, into profitable garbage and unincorporable pollution. 

As I wrote once in an essay about (yes) The Brave Little Toaster, the cool thing about paying attention to waste is that it tells a story, ordinarily secreted from view, about where it came from, where it’s going, and who it impacts in the process. And in listening to that story, in closely considering waste instead of simply displacing it from consciousness or reviling it where it appears, we can potentially revision the economy and culture that produced it. 

Toaster contemplates their own obsolescence. The Brave Little Toaster (Hyperion Pictures, 1987)

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary connecting artists and educators to salvaged materials, Spare Part’s ethic and aesthetic of “creative reuse” embodies a similar knot of heady ideas—one part arts-and-craft thrift store, one part arts education advocacy, one part circular economy thought incubator, one part anti-plastic critique. Their mission converges on an unusual assemblage of environmental, educational, and artistic values that in fact reflects their understanding of the nature of creativity itself, and the inherently creative practice of reuse.

As Cantú explains: “Reuse strengthens your divergent thinking,” or one’s ability to look at a problem and imagine multiple (“divergent”) solutions. Within the linear, monoculture thinking of industrial capitalism and its government bureaucracies, bubblewrap can only be destined for the landfill.

Within the divergent thinking of creative reuse, bubblewrap can become a skirt, fish scales, a textured stamp—as many possibilities as there are creators. Or, as captured in a child’s bubble lettering on a whiteboard that hangs on the walls of Spare Parts: trash is a failure of the imagination.

Art, price sheets, and truth telling: The back wall at Spare Parts. Image: Greg Harman

Creative reuse is thus about seeing anew, seeing differently, making unusual connections between ordinarily divergent objects; as I wrote in my essay on The Brave Little Toaster, it’s an environmental ethic “centered not on ‘getting rid’ of waste as hated object but rather on cultivating a mode of perception that recognizes and affirms all the ways in which we have a continuing relationally to what we consume as well as discard, even as powerful economic and social focus work to obscure these lines of connection.”

It’s an ethic that also reflects a larger movement that in recent years has seen the mushrooming of dozens of creative reuse centers across the country (most clustered in California and Florida, interestingly). Though Spare Parts has the distinction of being unique to San Antonio, Texas in fact boasts five other creative reuse centers (two in Houston, one in Austin, and one each in Denton and Richardson). Cantú hopes to expand the reach of Spare Parts in particular by cultivating more deliberate relations with school districts as a vendor.

Of course, there are limits to what can be revisioned and reimagined; discarded bubblewrap is a very different kind of waste than a dirty diaper or coal ash or the degreasing agents whose sloppy disposal into Leon Creek helped create Kelly Air Force Base’s infamous “Toxic Triangle.” While not as big an offender as the city’s coal, gas, and cement plants, San Antonio’s three landfills come in at 7, 8, and 9 among the city’s top 15 climate polluters. The point, then, is not so much to celebrate waste, and more to cultivate new encounters with it, new modes of seeing and thinking and problem-solving that ultimately create alternatives to the upstream economic system that produces so much waste (yeah, we’re talking about capitalism).

It’s true the bubble wrap salvaged and incorporated into a child’s art project remains non-biodegradable; taught one way, the emphasis remains on individual acts of consumption rather than on corporate responsibility for disposability. But in the hands of a project like Spare Parts, creative reuse can also become an opportunity to look upstream—from reuse to a refusal to buy new to finally seeing laid bare the secret lives of everyday objects, their histories of extraction and exploitation and their futures of disposal urging us to dream up new ways of thinking and doing.  

Support your local creative reuse center!

Donate materials, buy some 10th birthday merch, check out upcoming events and sales, shop for school supplies online, or visit in person 10am-3pm any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. What do they got? What don’t they got?

Take the virtual tour below:


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