Recycling is a wonderful thing. Applause and praise to all of us who devotedly throw our plastic, paper and glass into colored bins every week for the trash service to pick up. Even more cuddos to those of you who don’t have the luxury of a pickup service and manage to take your recyclables to a recycling center. But there is something we should all be doing more of before we recycle. We should re-use or find another use for our castoffs before they go into the recycle bin.
I’ve been reading Beyond Recycling A Re-user’s Guide by Kathy Stein (1997). She discusses ways to reuse or find new uses for everything from appliances to zippers. She termed the concept of re-use as “old-fashioned” and I scoffed upon reading this, but when giving it further thought, realized that she’s absolutely right. We are so very much a disposable society. Shame on us. Our grandparents and even our parents would not dream of throwing away all the things we toss in the trash – or even the recycle bin – every day. Yes, its “cool” to recycle; its hip, its now, its the thing to do if you’re even remotely planet aware. But even recycling can be problematic. The process of remanufacturing recycled goods into new products is not an energy efficient process and yes, while it reduces energy used to make virgin products, it is not always as environmentally friendly as we would like to think it is. Re-use can be good for our pocketbooks and a key to creating a sustainable future. I like this thought expressed in the book: “Re-using means rethinking our role as consumers and becoming conservers. It means stepping outside the prevailing culture from time to time and liberating ourselves from the thousands of daily messages on television, radio, magazines and billboards exhorting us to spend and comsume.” Ah! Such lofty thoughts bring out the old hippie in me. Rebel against the establishment!
So, to explore the idea of re-use and perhaps to get you thinking along this line with me, I’ll review a few of the suggestions from Ms. Stein’s book.
- Coffee filters – okay, here’s something scary I didn’t know. I knew white disposable coffee filters are “bleached”, but didn’t know there is a chemical used in the process, dioxin, that is HIGHLY TOXIC to humans. The solution? Re-usable coffee filters – they are available in everything from cotton muslin to gold-plated. You’re not only sparing yourself exposure to one more carcinogen, but you’re not filling your trashcan with non-recyclable paper goods and your coffee will taste better. As for the coffee grounds, everyone knows those go on the compost pile.
- Dry cleaning bags-I don’t use dry cleaners a lot. For one thing its horribly expensive, and for another most are environmentally very unfriendly. But a lot of people take a lot of clothes to the cleaners every week and come home with all those plastic bags. Alternative? Re-useable cloth dry cleaning bags. Ask your cleaners if they provide them or take it upon yourself to supply them. Take your clothes to the cleaners in the reusable bag and ask them to make sure they use the same bag (or a fresh one you provide when you drop off the dirties) to cover your clean clothes when you pick them up. You take home the dirty one and launder if needed and use it again next time.
- Preaddressed reply envelopes – Now, this is one of those “old-fashioned” ideas, but a good one. We all get mail with reply envelopes that go into the trash or paper bin. They can be re-used as list paper; they are great for packing vitamins or other small things when traveling; or re-use them for mail. Put a label over the address and make it your own. It will eventually wind up in the recycle bin, but re-using envelopes this way saves purchasing new ones and saves trees.
- Furnace filters – I’ve been buying re-usable furnace filters for years. For one thing, I usually can’t find the right size and need the ones you cut to fit. The other thing is, I hate spending money on that sort of thing. I recently found an adjustable one that has a nice frame around it and works better than the old flexible ones.
- Re-usable grocery bags – another one of the “cool” things to do if you’re eco-friendly. I will admit to a small feeling of pride as I walk out of Wal-Mart with my canvas bags overflowing my cart instead of mountains of the ugly white plastic things. Of course, that means I don’t have the ugly white plastic things to use as trash can liners or dog poo bags. My solution? I use a poo scoop (see my Product Review page) and I just don’t use a liner in my small cans anymore. If they get icky, I use a little soap and water and elbow grease. Not fun, but satisfying. Now I just need to find a non-plastic solution to my big kitchen trash can. Any ideas? Ms. Stein suggests using old dog food bags, but mine aren’t big enough.
- Cloth kitchen towels – When I read this, I thought to myself “Well, duh!” I was raised using cloth kitchen towels and use them on a daily basis – lots of them. I can’t imagine using paper towels for anything other than absorbing the grease off my fried foods when I indulge or the occasional small spill and then most of the time I use a cloth towel anyway. However, I do have a friend who has a paper towel dispenser on each end of her kitchen counter and a 24-pack of paper towel rolls in the corner. She uses them for everything and throws huge amounts in the trash daily. They also use a lot of paper plates and plastic cups – more waste since they live in a very small town with no recycling anywhere even remotely close. Maybe that’s more the norm than I realize.
- Re-useable lunch totes and containers – as the economy worsens, more people are packing lunches. Instead of disposable bags and baggies, use one of the great re-usable totes and plastic containers you can buy just about anywhere.
- Packing pellets – I absolutely HATE HATE HATE those ugly, staticky little white styrafoam packing pellets! I believe fewer and fewer shippers are using them because I haven’t gotten any in packages in quite a while, but when you do get them what do you do with the little buggers? Try taking them to a shipping store and see if they will take them. I have used them in the bottom of my big planters in the garden. They fill up space that would otherwise use a lot of expensive potting soil and are great for drainage.
- Plastic bottles – don’t buy them to begin with! If you do buy bottled water, wash and refill them over and over until they are unusable, then recycle. If you are one of those people who have to take water with you everywhere, use one of the many cool re-usable plastic or metal bottles available from any discount or sporting goods store. For a great example of planet-friendly re-use of plastic drink bottles, check out this website: www.terracycle.com/.
- Pantyhose – another “grandma” idea. Wash them first!!! Then cut off the legs and use them to strain stuff, use them to tie up plants in the garden. They are flexible and will give and take as the plant moves and grows.
- Cloth napkins – okay, this is one thing I need to do: use cloth napkins instead of paper ones. I have a basket of paper napkins on my kitchen table. They are not recyclable so always go into the trash, i.e., the landfill. My Mom started using cloth napkins years ago and I always enjoy using them at her house. I’ve tried using them in the past, but don’t have enough to use for several meals between washloads. Need to buy more.
- Tea bags – tea bags are bleached with the same nasty stuff as coffee filters. Try using loose leaf tea – tastes better than the tea “powder” put in bags anyway – and a strainer. Loose leaf tea is less expensive and doesn’t use as much paper packaging as bags. If you do use tea bags, throw them on the compost pile instead of in the trash.
- Wire hangers – return to the cleaners or donate to a local clothing charity.
- Plastic milk jugs – cut in half and use for starting seedlings in the garden or intact as a watering can.
- Glass jars – How many things come in glass jars? Jelly, pickles, peanut butter, and on and on. I like removing the labels and using these small jars for leftovers. I don’t have to think about plastic leaching into my food, I can see what it is without having to remove the lid, and I can see if I’ve left it in the fridge so long its now growing penicillin. I mix plant food in the larger ones and store them in the garage.
Besides all the above suggestions from Beyond Recycling, there are also local freecycling groups. Go on the internet and find one in your area. Google “freecycle Oklahoma City” or “freecycle Austin” and I’ll bet you’ll find one or more groups of locals that give stuff away to each other on a daily basis. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!
I hope you find this to be helpful information. Please leave comments and any other suggestions for re-using before recycling.
Keep it simple,