It has been said that we live in a throwaway society. We clean our hands on paper napkins, and wipe our noses with paper tissues, tossing them in the trash after a single use. We upgrade our computers and replace our cell phones nearly every year. Many of us even change our whole wardrobes every season, discarding old clothes that are in perfectly good shape because they’re “so last year.”
All this waste is costly – both for us and for the environment. We could all stretch our dollars much further by using the same item many times, rather than just once. And because we’d be buying less, we’d cut down on our use of energy and natural resources as well. So whenever you choose to reuse, you’re making your life greener and cheaper at the same time.
There are many ways to make reuse a part of your life. Some are simple, such as carrying a reusable shopping bag to the supermarket; others take a bit more effort, such as shopping secondhand or using pallets for building material.
So if you’re new to the whole idea of reuse, start with a few baby steps that are easy to handle. Once you become comfortable with those, work your way up to the big stuff. As you become accustomed to the practice, you’ll find yourself constantly discovering new ways to trim both household waste and your personal budget through reuse.
1. Ditching Disposable Items
Using disposable items is just a matter of habit for many people – grabbing a disposable bottle of water whenever leaving the house, or purchasing paper napkins at the grocery store.
In cases such as these, switching to a reusable item can feel awkward and unfamiliar at first. However, if you give it a chance, before long it will become second nature to fill up your water bottle or reach for a cloth napkin instead of a paper one. And once you’ve watched your trash can become lighter while your wallet stays heavier, you’ll never want to go back.
Here are just several of the disposable items you can get out of your life forever:
- Water Bottles. Drinking bottled water is a common and expensive habit. If you go through a $7 case of bottled water every week, that’s $364 per year for something you could get out of a tap for less than $1. Invest in a $17 reusable water bottle instead, and it will pay for itself more than 20 times over in its first year of use. At the same time, you’ll keep more than 1,200 disposable plastic bottles out of the waste stream Lastly, according to a report from the Pacific Institute, you’ll save more than 100 kWh of energy.
- Shopping Bags. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family takes home close to 1,500 plastic shopping bags each year. Those bags require more than 8,000 barrels of oil to manufacture, and only about 5% of them are recycled. You can avoid all this waste by carrying a reusable bag. There are dozens of kinds to choose from, including canvas, nylon, and string bags – and there are even bags you can fold up and tuck into a pocket, purse, or backpack, so you’ll never be caught out shopping without one.
- Dishes and Utensils. You probably use washable dishes, glasses, and silverware for your meals at home. But during the workday, you might not think twice about grabbing a paper cup full of coffee or a plastic fork to eat your lunch. Then, when you’re done eating or drinking, it goes right in the trash. Here’s a greener alternative: keep a plate, a mug, and a set of silverware at work. Then you can serve your takeout food in style and just wash the dishes when you’re done.
- To-Go Containers. Speaking of eating out, it’s likely you often find the large food portions at restaurants today are more than you want to eat in one sitting. If you ask to take home your leftovers, the server brings you a giant foam clam shell that just goes straight in the trash when the food is gone. So when you’re planning to eat out, avoid both food waste and packaging waste by bringing along a reusable container.
- Napkins. Many people use paper napkins all the time – even at home. A family of four that used one napkin at every meal would utilize and discard 4,300 napkins in a year – roughly $65 worth. That same family could buy a dozen cloth napkins for $10 and reuse them over and over. They’d save $55 just in the first year, produce less trash, and save trees.
When something around your house breaks, there are two things you can do: fix it, or run out to buy a new one. In many cases, the first choice is both cheaper and greener.
Here’s how repairs compare to replacements for several common items:
- Cars. If you own an old car that’s in and out of the repair shop all the time, it may seem as though it would be cheaper to buy a new one, rather than continuing to pay for repairs. But according to Edmunds, the average monthly payment on a car loan is $483, or $5,796 a year. So unless you’re paying that much every year to keep your old car on the road, it’s cheaper to keep repairing it. On the other hand, money isn’t everything. If your old car has become so unreliable that you don’t like to drive it because you fear being stranded miles from home, then replacing it could be a better choice.
- Computers. An unreliable computer can be just as frustrating as an unreliable car. But once again, replacing it isn’t always the only option. You can often cure a sluggish PC just by clearing away unnecessary system files, defragmenting the hard drive, or removing viruses. In many cases, this can cost you nothing at all. However, other computer upgrades cost some money – for example, it costs about $100 to upgrade to the latest version of Windows, $100 for a new solid-state hard drive, or $50 to add more memory. But that’s still quite a bit less than the $500 you’d pay for a new desktop computer – and it produces less toxic electronic waste as well.
- Furniture. If you have an old, scratched table or a chair with a worn out cover, don’t give up on it – you can cover those scratches using a $5 bottle of scratch-cover polish instead of spending $200 or more on a new one. The seat on a dining chair can be removed and recovered using a staple gun and $5 worth of fabric, saving you the cost of an $80 replacement. For more complicated furniture repairs, you can hire a professional – though, of course, this may cost more than replacing the piece, so be sure to check prices before making your decision.
- Clothing. Clothing with minor damage, such as a ripped seam or a missing button, is easy to fix. At many drugstores, you can purchase a $5 mini sewing kit that has everything you need to make small repairs: needles, thread, buttons, snaps, and safety pins. If you have a more complex repair project, or if you don’t know how to sew, you can find a tailor to do it for you. Simple repairs like replacing a zipper generally cost around $20, which is quite a bit less than replacing a winter coat or a pair of dress pants.
- Shoes. Sometimes it seems like the minute you get a new pair of shoes comfortably broken in, they wear out and have to be replaced. But sometimes, a simple DIY shoe repair is all it takes to keep those comfy shoes going. For example, scuff marks are easy to cover up with a marker pen, while broken laces and worn-out insoles are easy to replace yourself for $10 or less. For more complex jobs, such as replacing soles or heels, you can go to a shoe repair shop. However, this kind of repair may cost around $50, so it’s only worth doing on good shoes that cost significantly more than that to replace.
3. The Secondhand Marketplace
Sometimes, there’s just no way to repair an item. However, that doesn’t mean you need to buy a brand-new one – you just need one that’s new to you. When you shop secondhand, you can give someone else’s old stuff a new life and save money at the same time. You can also get new-to-you goods through swap sites, where people give away their unwanted items and pick up freebies from others.
Pretty much anything you can buy is cheaper when you buy it used. (The main exceptions are antiques and collectibles, which grow more valuable as they age.)
But secondhand shopping doesn’t just save you money – it also helps others make some money off their unwanted items. At the same time, it keeps old items out of the landfill and saves the resources and energy needed to make new ones.
You can shop secondhand at:
- Thrift Shops. You can find secondhand clothing, furniture, and household goods at thrift shops. Prices vary depending on the type of store. Nonprofit thrift stores, such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and church basement shops, typically charge the least. For instance, at my local church thrift shop, most items are $2 or less – but you have to watch out for damages, such as stains or missing buttons. By contrast, consignment stores often focus on selling like-new clothes from high-end brands. Prices here are often more than you’d pay for new clothes at a department store, but still much less than you’d normally pay for those designer labels.
- Yard Sales. You can find even bigger bargains at garage sales (also known as yard sales or tag sales). Yard-sale shopping is very hit-and miss, but on a lucky day, you can find real treasures at great prices. You can pick up all kinds of things at garage sales, including books, games, movies, music, furniture, electronics, and clothing – all at prices between 10% and 40% of retail. Kids’ items, such as clothes and toys, are particularly common, since children often outgrow things that are still in good condition. You can find yard sales in your area by checking local papers and sites like Garage Sales Tracker and Yard Sale Search.
- eBay. This giant online auction site has just about anything you can think of for sale – art, music, collectibles, cars, clothing, and even cars. This makes it a great place to look for obscure items you can’t find anywhere else. However, not everything sold via eBay is secondhand, and not everything is a bargain. To ensure that you get a good deal from eBay, you need to set a price limit – say, half what the item would cost in a store – and refuse to pay more than that. Another problem is that you can’t see the merchandise in person to check for defects. The best you can do is read the listings very carefully and pass up anything you’re not sure about.
- Swap.com. Despite its name, Swap.com is not a bartering website. Instead, it’s a consignment website where you can buy and sell clothing in good condition, as well as several other items like toys and books. Prices here are generally more than you’d pay at a nonprofit thrift store, but less than you’d pay at a consignment shop, with most clothing items priced between $4 and $20.
- Craigslist. Craigslist is a marketplace where people in a local area can buy, sell, and swap goods and services. The “for sale” section includes listings for cars, clothes, electronics, furniture, and more. Since anyone can post a listing, prices and the condition of items vary widely. However, when you shop through Craigslist, you often have a chance to check out the merchandise in person before you pay money for it. Most Craigslist sites also have a “free” section for giveaways, as well as a section for yard sale listings.
- Reuse Centers. If you need stuff for your home, a local reuse center is a great place to look. These stores carry a wide variety of building materials, appliances, and furniture in good condition. Prices are usually no more than half the retail price, and sometimes as low as 10% of retail. Reuse centers are most commonly found in or near large cities. You can check The Loading Dock and the Habitat for Humanity website to look for stores in your area.
- Secondhand Specialty Stores. Many stores specialize in a particular kind of secondhand wares, such as books or music. Some stores, such as Half Price Books, offer a selection of used books and recordings alongside their new ones.
Swapping goods is an even bigger win-win than shopping secondhand. You can get rid of your unwanted stuff and pick up new stuff at the same time, with no money changing hands. So you get all the environmental perks of buying secondhand, and the price is unbeatable: absolutely free.
Places to swap unwanted goods include:
- Freecycle. The Freecycle Network is like a version of Craigslist where everything is free. If you’ve got an item you don’t need – say, a too-small pair of ice skates – you can post it on your local group, and someone with smaller feet can pick it up for free. Freecycle has listings for just about everything: clothes, books, furniture, electronics, and even plants. Some items are in like-new condition, while others are completely broken (but still useful for parts). To see if there’s a local Freecycle group in your area, visit Freecycle.org and type in your city and state.
- Free Stores. Some larger cities have free stores and free markets, which are like an in-person version of Freecycle. You can drop off unwanted items in good condition and help yourself to anything other people have left. Most free stores don’t have permanent storefronts with regular hours; instead, they’re open-air markets that occur on a particular day – sometimes called “Really Really Free Markets” – or large boxes where people can pick and drop off items. To look for a free store near you, do a search on your town’s name followed by “free store” or “Really Really Free Market.”
- Swap Shops and Swap Meets. Swap shops and swap meets are similar to free stores, but with a twist: you have to give something to get something. It doesn’t matter what your item is or what it’s worth, as long as you donate something. One type of swap meet is a clothing swap party. At these events, you and all your friends bring the clothes you no longer want and trade them with each other.
- Online Swap Sites. You can also swap items online at swapping websites. For example, Swap Style is like an online clothing swap party for women all over the country. Another clothing swap site, thredUP, offers clothing for children as well as women. And at PaperBack Swap, you can trade in paperback books you’ve read and get new titles in exchange.
4. The Sharing Economy
When you shop secondhand, you’re reusing an item that someone else no longer needs. But there are also some things that nearly everyone needs, but almost no one needs every day. For example, anyone who has carpet needs a vacuum cleaner, but most people only use it about once a week. So it would make a lot of sense if there were some way for a bunch of neighbors to have just one vacuum and take turns using it.
That’s what the sharing economy is all about. It lets just one item – a book, a car, or even a building – be enough for multiple people.
Here are several examples:
- Public Libraries. Libraries aren’t just for books anymore. At many public libraries, you can also borrow audio books, music CDs, and DVDs of popular films and TV series. You can even read popular magazines instead of shelling out $5 a pop to buy them off the rack. Taking advantage of all these features can save you big bucks. For example, the average household with cable TV spends $103 a month on it, according to Leichtman Research. So if your library gives you enough entertainment choices to cancel your cable, you can save $1,236 per year.
- Car Sharing. Let’s say that you like to bike to work in good weather, but you prefer to drive on cold or rainy days. Instead of having a car that just sits in the driveway most of the time, you could join a car sharing program, such as Zipcar. Zipcar costs approximately $70 for its annual fee, plus approximately $8 for each hour you use the car. So if you made 10 three-hour trips per month, that would come to $2,950 a year. That’s less than half the $6,100 per year AAA says it costs the average driver to own a car.
- Bike Share Programs. If you use your car more often than your bike, you can keep the car and join a bike share program instead. This gives you access to a whole fleet of bikes you can check out as needed. For example, at Capital Bikeshare, in Washington, D.C., you can borrow a bike for a two-hour ride for a total of $11.50. Doing this twice a month comes to $276 a year, which is quite a bit less than the cost of most new bicycles. Plus, you don’t need to store the bike, which is handy if you live in a small apartment.
- Cohousing. Many houses have rooms that don’t get used every day. For example, you might only need your laundry room once or twice a week, your formal dining room twice a month, and your guest bedroom even less frequently. In a cohousing community, people can share these seldom-used spaces with others. Each person or family has a small, private home, while a larger building or home has spaces that can be used by all residents.
- Coworking. Just like homes, many office buildings have spaces that aren’t used regularly. Desks sit empty while people are on vacation, and conference rooms may only be needed once per week. Coworking spaces allow a bunch of freelancers or solo professionals to share one building. That way they all save money on rent, as well as amenities like coffee and Internet access.
- Community Gardens. It’s possible to share outdoor spaces as well. Community gardens are shared plots of land in the city where people join together to grow flowers and fresh vegetables. Many community gardens are free to join, but even if there’s a membership fee, it may be much lower than the cost of owning a house with a yard of your own.
- Specialty Shares. In many cities, there are special “libraries” where people can share all kinds of goods. Tool libraries make it easy to borrow home and garden tools you only need once in a while, such as an extension ladder. Toy libraries let kids choose from a much bigger variety of toys than they can keep in their rooms at home. And seed exchanges allow gardeners to give away extra seeds and seedlings they don’t need, while picking up ones they can use.
5. Creative Reuse
Often when you reuse an item, you’re continuing to utilize it for the same purpose – for example, a cloth shopping bag makes yet another trip to the store; an old computer is upgraded; a sweater that’s too small is donated to the thrift shop so a smaller person can wear it.
But sometimes, an item just can’t do its original job anymore. When that happens, there are two things you can do: either throw it out, or put it to a new use – an old Macintosh computer that can’t handle today’s software becomes an aquarium; a sweater with moth-eaten sleeves is cut down to make a vest.
These are examples of creative reuse, also known as upcycling or repurposing. This can be one of the more complicated ways to reuse items – but for people who love to let their imaginations run free, it’s also the most fun.
There are many ways to repurpose common items, such as:
- Mesh Bags. The mesh bags that onions come in at the grocery store can be given a new life: String a shoelace through the top to make a storage bag for bath toys, which allows them to drip dry when bath time is over. You can also use them to corral small kitchen tools, such as cookie cutters, before putting them through the dishwasher. A twisted-up mesh bag, held together with a rubber band, makes a good scouring pad for pots and pans.
- Milk Jugs. An empty milk jug also has lots of uses. You can cut off the top to make a storage bucket with a built-in handle. Cutting off the bottom, at an angle, creates a dust pan or a large scoop for kitty litter. Cutting off just the base makes a miniature greenhouse to protect your tender seedlings in the garden. You can also cut plastic from the sides of the jug to make stencils or toy pinwheels for kids.
- Blue Jeans. A pair of blue jeans that’s worn out at the knees still has lots of good, usable fabric. The simplest way to reuse it is to cut off the legs and make shorts. But with a little more sewing skill, you can turn the denim into a sturdy apron, a tote bag, a purse, or a set of pot holders.
- Canning Jars. The humble canning jar, also known as a mason jar, has become a trendy decor item. It’s used for storing everything from candy, to office supplies, to leftover paint. At chic parties, it can be found serving cocktails, holding candles, and displaying flowers. People convert them into miniature terrariums, pendant lights, and snow globes. Do a quick search on “mason jar projects” and you can see literally hundreds of other ideas.
- Shipping Pallets. Normally, shipping pallets are used once and discarded. They’re so bulky that it’s not worth the cost of shipping them back to be reused. This means that for creative carpenters, they make an almost unlimited supply of free wood. You can find instructions online for turning pallets into tables, chairs, wine racks, shelves, and just about everything else for the home. There’s even an entire website, 1001Pallets, devoted solely to projects made from pallets.
This doesn’t mean you have to start saving all your trash from now on so you can reuse it. The point of creative reuse isn’t to avoid throwing stuff away – it’s to avoid buying new stuff by putting what you have to good use.
Once you get into the habit of reusing things, the whole world becomes your materials bin. Instead of running out to the store when you need something, you start looking around to see what you already have. So for instance, if you need a hat rack, you might spot a big branch out in the yard and think, “Aha!” An hour later, the branch is stripped of bark and mounted on your wall, and you have a unique hat rack that will be the envy of your friends.
The three R’s of the green lifestyle are “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Of these three, recycling is the one that tends to get the most attention. These days, we all know how to separate our trash and how to look for the numbered logo on the bottom of a plastic bottle. And it’s easy to think that if we just toss our empty water bottles in the recycling bin rather than the trash, we’re doing our bit to help the planet.
But the truth is, reusing items is much better than merely recycling. Yes, recycling a soda bottle or a newspaper is better than making a new one from scratch. But turning old bottles into new bottles still takes energy and produces pollution. Plus, it only works if people remember to “close the cycle” by buying recycled products.
However, when you reuse a bottle you already own, you’re stopping waste dead in its tracks. Any energy that went into making that bottle has already been used; using it again doesn’t take a single watt more. And when that one reusable bottle can take the place of more than 1,200 disposable bottles every year, then you’re saving more energy – and more money – every time you use it.
What’s your favorite way to reuse items?