Trying to be eco-friendly? Much has been written in other places about how the recycling process itself has environmental consequences. So what’s an aspiring environmentalist to do? First, REDUCE! Three R’s, remember? If we just buy less, we’ve gone a long way towards being green.
Second, REUSE (a.k.a. repurpose)! That might be why we’re thrift store junkies, but you don’t have to go Goodwill hunting to reuse. Here are some simple things you can NOT buy but instead use common household items in place of. And, on that note, I would like to dedicate this post to my Grandmother Elliott, who lives on in my memory as the most practical re-user I’ve ever known. I like to think I’m channeling her thrifty spirit now and again.
How many pieces of paper with blank backs do you throw away or recycle each day? And why buy special, oftentimes fluorescent paper (which can’t be recycled due to the heavy dye) when you can reuse paper with a tiny piece of tape? I quarter my letter-sized sheets to reuse both at work and at home (I’m also the office fairy who hands out stacks of this paper to my colleagues). Admittedly, this has caused some marital strife in our house when Keith tried refusing to pack and move to our new house a ten-inch high stack of quartered sheets that had once been drafts of my Master’s thesis. Fortunately, I packed it when his back was turned. Now when he looks for a piece of paper, I say helpful things like,
“Wow. It’s a really good thing we have all this scrap paper handy. So glad we moved it, huh?”
9. Plastic Funnels
How many plastic bottles do you toss every week? Whether it’s a wide-mouthed juice bottle or a streamlined soda bottle, cutting off the bottom half of your plastic bottle produces a lovely funnel. I’m all about owning a nice metal funnel for canning and hot liquids, but if you’re going to buy a plastic funnel anyway, you might as well use some plastic you already have.
8. Microwavable Neck Pillow
My mother always had what she called the “Lonely Socks Club” sitting on the dryer, a repository for all of those singles to wait…and wait…to find their sole mates again. But every now and then, it would become apparent that some of those lonely socks would never again be a pair. If you, too, have a Lonely Socks Club, you have the casing for a microwavable neck pillow: just add rice and herbs and tie off the sock with a piece of string. No sewing is necessary, and you can congratulate yourself on having saved $14.99 you might have spent on Amazon.
7. Pet Fur Remover (brush or stone)
Our sure-fire method for removing cat fur from sofas, blankets, clothing, upholstery, carpet, and pretty much any other cloth surface is the magic of a rubber glove. No, really. Those rubber gloves that you have lying around for washing dishes can double as pet-fur removers. Simply put on the glove and run it over the furry surface. All the hair will clump together, and you can just pick it up and throw it in the compost–because pet fur is, in fact, compostable, as we have previously discussed (just make sure to get the really basic ones, not the ones with extra-lasting power or what-not…when they add extra plastic and stuff to make the gloves tougher, it decreases the fur-clumping abilities of the glove).
6. Travel Toiletry Containers
Because we all need more small plastic containers in our lives…um, not really, no. If you look around your domicile and in your purse or backpack, you’ll find you already have plenty of travel-sized containers: pill bottles, dental floss containers, hand sanitizer bottles, empty chapstick tubes or tubs, small plastic bottles, to-go dressing containers, empty spice bottles or jars, plastic containers for cake or ice cream sprinkles, plastic Easter eggs (come on, I know you hunted for those when you were a kid), jars of fingernail polish, small plastic containers with candy (M&M’s or Pez to name a few), tubs for face cream or other moisturizers, etc., etc. When I travel overnight, I put the face wash in one side of an old contact case and the moisturizer in the other. What’s that you say? “Sarah, I don’t have any of these types of containers. I live a plastic-free life!” “Wow,” I respond, “Kudos for being more awesome than the rest of us. But I’m pretty sure your neighbors or friends have some small plastic containers you can borrow.”
5. Rubber Bands
If you’ve ever bought produce at the grocery store, you have rubber bands. They come around the green onions, the celery, the leeks, the asparagus, you know, things that are long and green. However, if you never buy produce at the grocery store (I applaud your commitment to local produce or I question your healthy eating choices, depending on why you never buy produce), you can reuse those rubber gloves from #7. When they are worn out from washing dishes or removing pet fur, just make a cut all the way across the wrist of the glove about an inch from the bottom. Voila! A one-inch, heavy-duty, stylishly yellow rubber band (and you can make more than one rubber band from a pair of gloves…even a small pair yields at least three). I learned this trick from my aforementioned thrifty Grandmother Elliott. Thanks, Grandma!
4. Reusable Grocery Bags
Okay, I do buy these every now and then…as a tax on myself when I forget a bag. In Europe, they charge you 10 pence/cents/pennies/pfenigs/whatever-you-call-it or so each time you have to use a plastic bag instead of bringing your own. So if I forget mine, I buy a reusable bag because I figure I should have to pay for the resources I use. BUT there’s no need to buy them on purpose because you don’t have enough. You can reuse an old t-shirt to make a grocery bag…WITHOUT SEWING it. There are two different methods, beautifully explained by our awesome friends at Trash Backwards: 1) The Upcycled T-Shirt Bag and 2) The No-Sew Hobo Bag (the English teacher in me loves the rhyming name of the second, but the time-limited crafter in me loves the first one and has made several).
3. Pet Poo Bags
Seriously, think about how many bags you already throw away or recycle: the bags inside your cereal box, the tortilla bags, the chip bags, the Triscuit or Cheez-It bags, the bread bags, the bag around your newspaper, the plastic packaging around your toilet paper, the bagel bag, the bag of lettuce…I could go on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned the obvious grocery bags or produce bags (because we really try not to ever get those–did you know there are reusable produce bags, too?). Even if you, as we do, make a lot of your own bread or snacks, you still probably have way more bags than you want to admit. So DON’T BUY SPECIAL BAGS FOR PET POOP. Just don’t. There’s absolutely never a reason to do so.
2. Cleaning Rags
We all like that virtuous feeling of cleaning out the closet and donating old clothes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army: “Ahhh. My closet is clean, and I’ve helped the needy,” we think (perhaps a tad self-righteously). However, I have worked in a thrift store before, and I’ve volunteered to sort things for many a donation center. What I can tell you is that people donate the most awful, disgusting, and unusable garbage you can imagine. They donate expired food to the Food Bank, sweat-stained clothing to the Goodwill, and broken toys to the Toys for Tots program. Oh, yes, they do. And if you think about it, you probably have done one of these things yourself. My friends, if you are too grossed out to wear it, most other people will be, too. There are places that you can donate old, stained clothes to farm workers spraying pesticides so that the clothing can be disposed of afterward, but some clothing with holes, you should reuse yourself as cleaning rags. Really, there’s no need to buy cleaning rags when old t-shirts, boxers, and tank tops can be used to wash cars, clean bathrooms, and scrub floors.
1. Plastic Leftovers Containers
First, I try to be conscious of packaging. Does the item come in glass, metal, or paperboard instead of plastic? If so, I buy that. Think of the few extra cents you might pay as an environmental tax of sorts. Then reuse those glass containers for storing bulk foods, making yogurt, or holding leftovers (hey, glass is microwavable while plastic isn’t). But when there is an item that does come in plastic and nothing else, keep the container. For a kid’s lunchbox, for giving away food to friends and neighbors (I do a lot of this), or for freezing things, you might want plastic instead of your more versatile glass. So save those cottage cheese, yogurt, and peanut butter containers to reuse! You don’t have any of these containers? That’s okay. Your neighbor’s trash will yield plenty. Just wait until nighttime to raid their garbage bin, or you might have some explaining to do!
Updated: Feb. 7 at 10:00 a.m.: Want more ideas? Check out Trash Backwards’ new post: 10 Things You Should Never Have to Buy! I challenge all of you to make and share your own top 10 lists of things to reduce and reuse. If we all share our best practices, we can learn from each other!