When it comes to the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—reduce is the trump card, but reuse comes in a close second. Making something new from something used saves money and resources—and makes you feel good, too.
“The key is, whenever you have something you’re going to throw away, stop and think, ‘Is there some way I could make use of this?’” says Todd Larsen, corporate responsibility director for Green America (formerly Co-op America). “It’s a habit we could all get into.”
Stumped? Let the kids figure out what to do with it, Larsen says. “They have the greatest imaginations—a kid will make a telescope or a toy out of it, or use it for a craft or something else they’re building. The most creative ideas come from them.”
Coming out of the closets
• Don’t ditch the shirt over a lost button. Remove the button you’re least likely to see and use it as the replacement. Or buy different buttons for a brand new look.
• Breathe new life into old footwear at the shoe repair shop; replace heels or soles, repair linings or just get them shined up.
• Patch it (iron-ons are easy!). If it’s no longer suitable for the office, wear it for cleaning, painting or gardening.
• Host a clothing swap party. Invite all your friends to bring their unwanted clothes and trade!
• Tear T-shirts into rags for washing windows, waxing the car or paint clean-ups.
• Repurpose old socks by cutting them into strips and clamping them to a mop handle with a clamp apparatus. (Use wool for dusting, cotton for wet-mopping.)
• Worn-out knees on your jeans? Make cut-offs.
• For a wine bottle or coffee cup cozy, cut the sleeves off an old sweater, then felt in the washer. (Felting is a process of washing and agitating yarn in hot water to make it shrink and become more dense. Make this cup cozy today!) Cut or roll the edges to the right size.
• Cut the sleeves off a team T-shirt, then sew the waist closed for a reusable shopping bag with personality. Make this reusable shopping bag!
• Put together a kids’ clothing exchange at your church, neighborhood association or scouting troop. Then let the kids show off their wardrobe-swap favorites at a fashion show.
• Turn the top half of jeans into a durable, retro bag by sewing the leg holes closed and attaching a belt for a shoulder strap. Make this jeans purse!
• Turn old sweaters into oven mitts (use only 100 percent wool); just felt, cut and sew. Old sweater pieces also make great patchwork blankets or pillow covers.
• Make a sock monkey for Junior—or Fido. Make a sock monkey!
• A picture frame with no glass makes an interesting dresser tray.
• Hang your curtains on something different: an old garden tool handle, a piece of rustic rope, a tree branch or cut pipes and fittings.
• Don’t toss stained throw pillows; recover them with old sweaters or tablecloth sections, or sew buttons or patches over the spots.
• If a table or dresser top is in bad shape, fix it up with zero-VOC paint, decoupage or a mosaic made from chipped dishes. (Check out these decoupage instructions and a video on making mosaics )
• You can make almost anything that’s fire-resistant into a lamp with a hardware-store kit. Cracked pottery or an old pitcher will work well.
• Make an over-the-door toiletry organizer with two pillow cases and some ribbon. Make this toiletry tote!
We use more paper products than we need to. Instead of
• Facial tissues: Carry a bandana or handkerchief.
• Paper towels: Use cloth dish towels or rags; retired hand towels or washcloths are great for kitchen duty.
• Disposable sheets for floor-duster mops: Use an old washcloth or a rectangle cut from a towel or flannel shirt—they’re washable.
• Gift wrap: Reuse a gift bag, the Sunday comics or brown paper bags.
• Napkins: Use cloth napkins; reuse stained tablecloths by cutting the spots out and sewing into squares.
For the garden
Save cans, milk and egg cartons, yogurt containers and cardboard flats for starting garden seeds indoors.
• Plant flowers in old boots, dented kitchen pots or chipped teapots.
• Forego nursery plants—get to know your neighbors by swapping cuttings from your yards.
• Old pie plates, steel cans and other shiny or noisy objects, when strung from fences and trellises, make effective scarecrows. Have the kids make a real scarecrow from old clothing stuffed with rags.
• Gift wrap a bottle of wine in a sewn sleeve for a unique finish. Make this wine wrap today!
• Make stock of it all. Save onion and celery tops, carrot peelings, wilted greens, tomato cores, asparagus stems, meat bones, fish heads or shrimp shells for delicious soup stock. Keep them in the freezer until you have enough.
• A little leftover bacon grease makes delicious homemade salad dressing; just add vinegar and sugar.
• Reuse cottage cheese and sour cream containers to freeze leftovers or store kids’ game pieces.
• Egg cartons make great organizers, especially for kids’ trinkets. They also can be made into a board for mancala, or wari, a traditional African game. For a truly kid-captivating project, add papier-mâché made from newspaper strips, then paint.
• Attached to that old shirt? Transform it into a reusable shopping bag. Make this reusable shopping bag today!
Reworking the office
• Reuse your calendar—purchase a perpetual one that works for every year. If you have a day-by-day calendar, use the backs of the sheets for grocery lists and reminder notes.
• Give one-sided copies to your kids to use as drawing paper.
• Cut the top and side out of a cereal box to make a magazine holder. Make this magazine holder today!
• Add panache to an old picture frame with leftover tiles. Make this mosaic picture frame today!
Got creativity? Get $$$
• If you have a knack for repurposing things, why not sell your goods? Etsy is the place to do it. (It’s also a fabulous resource for reuse ideas!)
Give a little bit
• Freecycle has almost 5,000 local groups worldwide. Offer your stuff online and watch it disappear. (Find things that you need, too!)
• Have a box of cabinet pulls you replaced during the kitchen remodel or a can of paint you never used? Habitat ReStore accepts leftovers in good condition from construction and remodeling jobs and uses the proceeds to fund affordable housing projects worldwide.
• Donate clothing and household goods to your local nonprofit thrift stores such as those run by Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
• Check out www.swapnstuff.com or www.swaptree.com; you can trade CDs, DVDs, books and video games.
• Instead of a garage sale, next time host a neighborhood swap where all items are free. It’s fun and good for building community.
• If you absolutely can’t think of another use for that silly souvenir or funky fashion, swap the stuff with someone from another country! Gimme Your Stuff lets you post a blog offering your stuff for swap. The result? Cultural kitsch—and good will.
Trash Matcher; The Imagination Factory
Click on a type of trash and get a great craft idea for the kids.
Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design by Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008)
Jean Therapy: Denim Deconstruction for the Conscientious Crafter by Scatha G. Allison with Marla Stefanelli (Quarry Books, 2008)
Sweater Surgery: How to Make New Things with Old Sweaters by Stefanie Girard (Quarry Books, 2008)
Eco Craft: Recycle, Recraft, Restyle by Susan Wasinger (Sterling Publishing, 2009)
Fabulous Jewelry from Found Objects: Creative Projects, Simple Techniques by Marthe Le Van (Lark Books, 2007)
Sweater Renewal: Felting Knits into New Sweaters and Accessories by Sharon Franco Rothschild (Potter Craft, 2008)
“Handmade Nation” documentary
Recycled product directories
California Integrated Waste Management Board
Recycled Plastic Products Directory
(Click on “learning center,” then “recycled plastic products directory”)
Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines
With help from her office dog, Ghost, Misty McNally writes about eco-friendly products and practices from her home in Kansas City, Missouri.