Suburban Pioneers

The Adventures and Misadventures of Homesteading in 21st-Century America

Sarah: 10 Common Products You Never Need to Buy February 4, 2013

reduce-reuse-recycle-4Trying 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.

10. Post-Its

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?”

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

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.

oh, so many uses for this product

oh, so many uses for this product

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


Reuse these and avoid buying more plastic!

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

Each of these is reused--nothing new here!

Each of these is reused–nothing new here!

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

Where all our bags go to die...

Where all our bags go to die…

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!


Sarah: Beautiful, Beautiful Compost October 14, 2012

Step 1: Go dumpster-diving. Rescue 7 wooden pallets for a 2 section bin or 10 pallets for a 3 section bin.

During a brief stint as a horticulturist, I discovered the beauty of compost.


By horticulturist, I mean that I worked as a seasonal clerk in one of the local plant nurseries.  And by beauty, I mean the lovely, smelly, rotten, earthy mush that somehow becomes new plant  life.  It’s not for the fainthearted.  But you have to admit that it is a pretty remarkable transformation.


Unfortunately, at the outset of my compost fascination, we lived in a small apartment.  Admittedly, I knew of people doing worm compost in their apartments, but I couldn’t figure out anywhere to put the worm compost bin that wouldn’t make the entire apartment smell.


Step 2: Learn to use a drill.

Fortunately, I was able to feed my compost obsession by sealing all our rotting fruits, coffee grounds, house plant leaves, and veggies into previously-used plastic yogurt containers and passing them off at church.


At this time, our group of 20-and-30-year-olds was attempting a community garden, which wasn’t really successful due to the inconvenient location of the garden and the busyness of everyone’s schedules, but all of us were very good at generating rotting vegetable matter.


Step 3: Screw the pallets together leaving the front open (for easy shoveling out and turning over of compost). Set aside 2 separate pallets for the front panels.

Exchanging pounds of compost in the church parking lot is a little absurd.  On the other hand, it seems like it could be a theological metaphor–something about dumping our rotten stuff and praying that it’s somehow transformed into something much better.


Keith and I were the best rotten-vegetable-matter generators.  The other 20-and-30-year olds were very impressed with our healthy eating.  Actually, we generated compost because we were overly optimistic about the number of vegetables we would manage to cook during the week, and so we routinely had to clean out vegetable sludge from the drawers of our refrigerator (see my upcoming post on What NOT to compost).


Step 4: Over the two separate front pallets, staple chicken wire. These two pallets will be set in place as the front but will be held on by looped wire instead of by screws.


After recently moving to a house of our own, one of the first things we did was start a compost pile.  We tried two or three different locations in the yard before settling on one halfway between the house and the back fence.  Lesson one: if your compost pile is too far from your house, you will not want to make the trek out to dump the compost.


Once the location had been determined (and the other small, abandoned compost heaps had been removed from their various positions), it was time to build a compost bin.  Now this step wasn’t strictly necessary because a heap of compost composts itself just fine without being contained.  But a heap of rotting plant matter is a bit unsightly, and to maintain neighborly relations, it’s best to keep your compost from becoming a compost blob, so we set out to build a bin.



There are some great plans for compost bins on the internet.  One of the blogs I read about compost bins reviewed some different types of bins.  The author finally chose to use plans from Lowe’s to build his…for the low price of $350!


Step 5: Roll chicken wire around inside and outside of the pallets and staple into place. This keeps critters from getting in but still allows your compost to breathe. We found the chicken wire in a dumpster, but you can also buy it cheaply at a used building materials store.

What we finally ended up with probably won’t last quite as long as his, and it doesn’t look quite as nice as his, but I figure that it’s going to be holding rotting plant refuse.


End result: 7 wooden pallets, a roll of chicken wire, two old window screens, and some old hinges make a pretty sturdy containment system with two sections–for the thrifty price of $6.37 cents.



I also feel pretty good about saving 7 wooden pallets, a roll of chicken wire, two old window screens, and some old hinges from the landfill.

Step 6: Using old hinges (these are from cabinets we replaced in our house), attach screens to the top of the bin for easy open-and-close lids. We bought the screens from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for $3.00 each. They were the one material we purchased.


Keith felt a little less good about my dumpster-diving habits when I had to call him at work last spring and ask him to bring his truck to pick up the 4 pallets I had found (which, surprisingly, wouldn’t fit in my small Nissan Altima).  I stood guard by the dumpster until he came.  I thought it too risky to leave such valuable materials by themselves.  Who knew how many other dumpster-diving compost-bin-builders there might be to swoop in and steal my find?


The other 3 pallets came from a construction site.  The very kind supervisor waved aside my refusal to accept his help loading them into the back of the very small Nissan Altima.  “My wife,” he said, looking pointedly at my belly, “was also very stubborn when she was pregnant.  Just let me do it.”


Step 7: Set the two front panels in place and hold closed with twists of wire. This way, you can remove them to shovel compost out or turn compost over. To dump your daily compost, just open the screens!

Little Bear helps us build our compost bin by entertaining herself. We’re instilling sustainability values early on.

It only took us three half-hour sessions to build the compost bin.  This is good.  When the wood pallets decompose, it won’t take us long to reconstruct it.


Also, because we have a baby, projects that can be done in half-hour increments are probably the only kind of projects we will accomplish anyway.  We dream of upping our project time to 45-minute increments…then again, we also dream of sleeping for an uninterrupted 8 hours at a time.  I guess you just have to celebrate the small victories in the meantime.







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