Date of Award

Summer 8-20-2021

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Anthropology and Environmental Policy


Cindy Isenhour

Second Committee Member

Lisa Neuman

Third Committee Member

Jessica Leahy

Additional Committee Members

Andrew Crawley

Linda Silka


This dissertation presents an ethnographic exploration of diverse reuse economies in rural Maine in an effort to illuminate both how used goods move between people and organizations, as well as the value of that movement for people and communities. In response to a growing number of calls for research into the social dimensions of circular economies, this research explores the varied and uneven impacts of materials reuse as they are experienced by local participants. This work uses a qualitative approach, drawing on two main methods: participant observation in reuse establishments and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with reuse participants. This rich qualitative data provides a detailed picture of reuse activities at a local scale, and helps us understand the complex relationships formed and perpetuated through reuse. This research presents three important contributions to the literature on reuse and circular economies. First, there are strong associations between reuse practices (buying, selling, lending, and gifting used goods) and social capital. This suggests that reuse practices might contribute to the social fabric of communities, building trust, relationships, cooperation, and support. Yet my research also highlights the negative consequences of social capital, such as when people are excluded from networks, resources, and opportunities along racialized and classed divisions. My research emphasizes that both reuse and social capital must be understood as complex practices that have the potential to exclude as well as include. Policymakers and community members eager to contribute to localized wellbeing must understand and plan for these complex effects as they create supports for localized reuse. Secondly, this research illustrates key differences between localized reuse economies and globalized platforms for exchange. The social value offered by reuse economies is absent in online, frictionless exchanges that allow for goods to move quickly between buyers and sellers. I find that the friction – the slowness, awkwardness, and time-intensiveness – of localized reuse is what offers potential social benefits. Growing globalized reuse exchanges forecloses important opportunities to foster these important social networks. Finally, my work examines the labor that powers localized reuse economies. I find that the unwaged, voluntary labor of elderly volunteers is often unseen and unvalued. Indeed, volunteers are performing emotional and affective labor as they manage the surplus of their communities. This research suggests that policies designed to address material surplus do so with these laborers in mind. Taken together this dissertation envisions localized reuse economies as diverse economies defined by complexity and social relationships. These findings offer policymakers and local decision-makers solutions for promoting just and equitable localized circular economies.