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Reusing items is better than recycling

We're a society filled with environmental do-gooders. Most of us have picked up the habit of collecting piles of newspapers and lugging them out to the curb and filling our blue recycling bins with plastics and glass.

Some of us go the extra green mile, always on the lookout for recycling drives and even paying to have old household appliances and technology recycled. Buying natural and organic items for our homes is a source of pride, as well.

We are doing our part to save the planet, and we're proud of it.

But the second of the "three R's" -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- doesn't seem to be getting its fair share of the action.

4 ways to reuse

Once an item is no longer new, there are several ways to either make money or save money:

  • Reuse it -- for its original purpose a new purpose.
  • Give it away -- to someone who can reuse it.
  • Sell it -- recoup original cost while reusing.
  • Buy it used -- reuse it and save money.

"Keeping up with the Joneses can influence how people want to be perceived. Recycling can be a good duty, while reusing is being cheap and maybe indicating that you don't have enough finances to buy new," says Donna Watkins, whose Web site TheFrugalLife.com and 13,400-circulation e-mail newsletter provide information on how to live frugally with the resources you have.

Fast Fact:

If 20 percent of U.S. households replaced one cordless phone with a corded model we would save 560 million kilowatt hours annually -- enough to power 130,000 phone conversations for every waking hour.

Recycling -- breaking down items into raw materials to be used again -- is important, but environmental experts know reusing is more important, notes Jim Mihelcic, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University and past co-director of the institution's Sustainable Futures Institute.

Unfortunately, Mihelcic adds, most people see it the other way around. "Recycling is much cooler than reusing," Mihelcic says. "It's a more visual thing to do. It's an easy way for people to connect with environmental issues. Reuse is kind of lost."

Besides the "cheap" perception, the belief that it's too time-consuming also keeps people from reusing, Watkins says. "Although it saves time by reusing what you already have in the home, it takes a new lifestyle choice to organize the stuff you have and look around for an answer to your need before going shopping."

Reusing comes most easily to those from the Depression era. Baby boomers are buyers. "Advertising has trained us to believe new is better," Watkins adds.

Fast Fact:

Buying a refurbished computer instead of a new one would save the 139 pounds of waste, 7,300 gallons of water, and 2,300 kilowatt hours of energy required to manufacture a new one.

Mark Caserta, a former lobbyist for the New York League of Conservation Voters, can recall his grandmother saying of many items, "Can't we save and reuse it?" and his mother replying, "Why do that when you could just throw it out?"

Now Caserta is co-owner, with his wife, of the Brooklyn store 3r Living, which carries products aimed at reducing waste, reusing unwanted or discarded materials, and recycling. Yet, it's the recycling aspect of the business that gets people's attention most. "When people come to our store, almost universally they call it the recycling store," Caserta says.

Why reuse

Waste prevention, also known as source reduction, is a convincing reason to use and reuse products. "Preventing waste saves natural resources and the energy consumed to make new products. It also reduces greenhouse gases associated with manufacturing and waste disposal, and it saves disposal costs," reminds Roxanne Smith, a press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lynda Grose, an adjunct professor of sustainable fashion design at the California College of the Arts and a consultant on sustainable design issues for Gap and other companies, puts it like this: "There's no such thing as disposable. Everything goes somewhere." Not to mention, there are environmental stresses with each stage of the product life cycle, from pre-manufacturing and manufacturing to packaging and transport, she adds.

Between 2 percent and 5 percent of the waste stream is potentially reusable, according to the EPA. While reuse can mean keeping something with the same owner -- for its original or a new use -- it can also mean redistributing materials to those who would find a use for them.

Any form of reuse can mean saving money. Mihelcic has observed that people get excited about extra money in their pockets when politicians talk about tax breaks, yet don't tend to see reuse as a way of putting money in their pockets. "Reusing actually saves you more than a tax break," he points out.

In more than 6,000 communities nationwide, there's an added economic motivation to reuse: The less you throw away, the less you pay for waste removal. In these "pay-as-you-throw" towns and cities, residents pay for waste removal based on how much waste they produce.

Here's a closer look at the four major reuse practices:

1. Reuse it -- for its original purpose or a new purpose.

Many everyday items, such as bags and containers, can be used more than once, the EPA reminds.

Some examples:
Bring paper or plastic grocery store bags back to the store for the next trip.
Use both sides of paper and save scrap paper.
Save and reuse gift boxes, ribbons and larger pieces of wrapping and tissue paper.
Reuse boxes, packaging "peanuts" and bubble wrap for wrapping new parcels.

Purchasing with reuse in mind is important, too. Cloth napkins, cloth diapers, dish cloths, quality tools and appliances, and refillable items all fit the bill. And don't underestimate the environmental impact of discarding broken items either. Can they be repaired and then reused?

As for clothing, practicality rules with reuse. While buying something made of organic fabric may seem the best environmental choice, it's actually not if you wind up wearing the item only once and tossing it, notes Grose. Better to wear every item you buy again and again, repairing as necessary.

Take a yellow retro dress Grose owns that she often wears to weddings. Rather than retire it after she discovered a strawberry stain, she embroidered over the stain the names of the friends married that day.

2. Give it away -- to someone who can reuse it.

Many household items could easily be used again for another purpose, including empty glass and plastic jars, milk jugs, coffee cans and similar containers for storing leftovers, buttons, nails, etc. Just be sure to keep practical safety in mind, the EPA reminds. Don't reuse containers that originally held products such as motor oil or pesticides, don't store anything potentially harmful in containers designed for food or beverages and always label containers and store them out of reach of children and pets.

Those willing to get creative have a host of other options, as well. Use extra lumber pieces for smaller projects, such as a birdhouse or mailbox.

Clothing could be put to use in many ways. Grose, for instance, made a curtain for her daughter's bedroom out of an old striped shirt she had purchased secondhand back when she was a student. And she took a pair of favorite pajama pants that she'd worn over 20 years ago and made a pillow for her daughter's bed. "There are memories in that pillow. It's not just a Pottery Barn pillow," she says. (Not to mention, it didn't come with a Pottery Barn price.)

Fast Fact:

If just 1 percent of the 20 million computers discarded each year were replaced with refurbished machines, the waste saved could fill more than 1,700 garbage trucks; the water conserved could fill 73,000 backyard swimming pools, and the energy saved could power every personal computer owned in the U.S. for 55 straight hours.

"The X and Y generations have been schooled in dozens of do-it-yourself programs and literature to boost creative ways and ideas of how to reuse with style," says Terra Wellington, a wellness lifestyle expert who has spoken on television about environmental tips for families and is currently writing a book on eco-tips for moms. "Don't like the color? Change it. Don't like the shape? Cut it down to size. Don't enjoy an item? Turn it into something else of use."

Creative solutions aren't limited to reuse of tangible items. "Think about how you run your house," says Mihelcic, who converted his own home, an old farmhouse, into an environmentally friendly structure, with solar hot water heating and other green features.

Waste water collected from clothes washers, bathtubs, showers, and laundry or bathroom sinks, for example, is known as gray water and can be safely reused (where not prohibited) for household gardening, composting, and lawn and landscape irrigation. (Advice and tips for using gray water can be found on the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Web site.)

3. Sell it -- recoup original cost while reusing.

Checking in with family and friends may be the easiest way to find a new home for old items, from tools to camera equipment to children's toys. Caserta estimates that 90 percent of the clothing his daughter wears was handed down from people he knows. The networks Freecycle and FreeSharing are two places to find local people in need of specific items.

When looking to simply drop off unwanted items, good options include Goodwill, Red Cross, United Way and the Salvation Army. There are more than 6,000 of these and other "reuse centers" around the country, according to the EPA.

Also consider schools, day care facilities and senior centers as donation spots, especially for items (such as egg cartons and colored paper) that could be used as crafts projects. Computer equipment and other electronics may also be welcome; some agencies that facilitate the donation of used computers can be found at the EPA's Web site.

Keep in mind: Donations to nonprofit reuse operations with 501(c)3 status can result in a tax deduction based on fair market value.

4. Buy it used -- reuse it and save money.

Call it practicing reuse for a profit -- or "entrepreneurial reuse," as Wellington does. Whether it's through a tag sale, the classifieds or an online auction on eBay, finding a buyer for items you don't want keeps them out of landfills.

Fast Fact:

Less than a third of all children who live within a mile of their school actually walk there, while half go by car. If just 6 percent of those students walked, it would save 60,000 gallons of gasoline -- per day!

Buying one of those items keeps reuse going, too. "It's important to buy at Goodwill as well as drop off at Goodwill," Grose reminds, adding that specialty designers are a source of reused items as well. For example, Used Rubber USA creates bags, wallets and other items out of reclaimed industrial rubber; Crispina rugs, blankets and other products incorporate sweater fabrics; and the Green Glass Company makes drinking glasses out of old bottles.

Just be sure you don't buy what you don't truly need. For Mihelcic, that meant reusing the infrastructure of his old home while refurbishing it, even though it meant constraints on the design. From the manufacture of the original home's tiles to its concrete, "There's a tremendous amount of embodied energy, embodied water that went into creating what went into your house," he says.

When Grose hears people in her industry say things like, "Now all my sheets are organic," she can't help but think, "What happened to your old ones?"

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