Reuse, Reuse, Reuse

In 2020 we'll celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, so it feels like a good time to start up a conversation about the environment. Specifically what we're doing, what we're not doing, what we wish we were doing. I often get overwhelmed by reading about the current situation on our planet. So for this feature, I'm planning to break things down into manageable bits. In that way, my hope is that it will also be easier for all of us to take part in the conversation--and to swap ideas for what we can all be doing. The idea is to keep this very much on the small (or smallish) things that we as individuals can do in our everyday lives.

First up, let's talk about things we reuse. This may not sound all that exciting, but I think that's kind of the point--while I'm as susceptible as the next person to buying shiny, new stuff that's going to magically fix the environment, we can't really just buy our way to a healthier planet. We also need to keep on using what we already have.

I grew up in a pretty frugal household where we were expected to bring home our brown paper lunch bags and the plastic bags within them. And I'm now that person who washes all the ziploc bags because goshdarnit, they're still good and we can use them again!

One thing I've not done that I'd like to try is to find a substitute for plastic wrap, which I use fairly often when baking.

A few years ago, I got some reuseable grocery bags and while it took a little while for the habit to kick in, it's now second nature to grab a bag (or a bunch of them) before heading to the store.

Last week I took a couple pairs of shoes to my favorite shoe guy (who delivers fascinating mini lectures on shoe care). One pair was just starting to show a few signs of wear, and thanks to the new heel caps being put on, they should last me a good long while longer. The other pair turned to be too far gone, so now I'm trying to figure out if there's anything I can do with them besides throw them in the trash when I finish wearing through the sole (which I'm well on my way to doing).

So please share any thoughts you have on reusing stuff! And please share thoughts on future topics you want to see covered (transportation, water, plastic, food, and clothing are all on my mind) as well as any ideas for a name for this feature, which I'm hoping can be a monthly thing!

104 thoughts on “Reuse, Reuse, Reuse”

  1. This is something our house struggles with a little bit. We are both pretty minimalist and don't tend to keep things with the "in case we can use it" or "this can be fixed at some point" rationale. So, we end up disposing or handing down or passing off a lot of stuff. Then we also end up without a lot of options to reuse things that might serve a purpose because they've already been removed from the house.

    Tim Morton's thought about disposal has made me more conscious of what I toss out: "Where on Earth is away, when we have planetary awareness? One's garbage doesn't go away, it just goes somewhere else."

      1. If it's alright, I'd be interested in a discussion of rural/urban lifestyle in this series. I know I mention related matters with enough frequency, but it was actually on my mind yesterday because I noted a stark difference in the two different tournaments our lego league team attended. The one in an out-state location was all about being green, and tried for a no-garbage approach, with local donations to help accomplish that. The one in St. Paul yesterday was... less than green. I'd be interested in discussing more about whether this was a fluke or a lifestyle thing.

        1. My first question is the relative wealth of the two areas. Urban residents have lower carbon footprints, and tend to be healthier, because of the ability to not use a car for everything. I don't know if that extends to overall waste.

          1. I'm questioning some of this. We have to drive 20 miles to get to a bigger town, but we only do it once or twice a week, and there's no sitting in traffic to do so. Else we stay in town and drive much less in the day to day.

            1. Before work and then we moved, it would have been possible to take the kids to school and then me commute without any driving. The engine pollutes the most early in driving until it can warm up. Shorter trips are good, but it isn't a linear relationship. Rural-ish cities have this the worst now because they've probably been remade so you have to drive everywhere. Our current city town predates the automobile but even the downtown strip has been remade to emphasize driving over any other mode of transportation. It's very walkable once we're there but it's hard to live close enough to not first require driving.

              1. D.C. was certainly a walking friendly experience for us - we went 5 years without owning a car. My experience of other cities suggests they aren't all built equally in this regard.

                I suppose the suburbs to be the worst of both worlds.

  2. We've always had pretty good recycling programs here, and for many years, but lately we keep hearing about one more type of material that can no longer be recycled, so we're making negative progress on that front. When trash pickup (and recycle pickup) was cut back to once a week, a lot of out neighbors complained; as it is, our trash only goes out every 2 or 3 weeks. We've been upgrading things around the house and cleaning out the basement, and I've made more than one trip to Goodwill and ReStore.

    I'm more concerned with our carbon footprint than the trash we're generating, though. All three of us drive hybrids, and with the new windows etc. we've cut our utilities by ~15%. I wish the house orientation was more conducive to considering solar panels.

    1. My in-laws' recycling just cut down a bunch of stuff they can't do anymore. I was shocked when we were there for Christmas. I don't recall exactly what it was, but it was something like "no non-corrugated cardboard" or something, meaning the box the jalapeno poppers came in couldn't be recycled.

      Our recycling is pretty inclusive. The only thing I'd like them to take that they don't is egg cartons.

      We regularly only have our trash bin about 1/2 full (even when TLO was in diapers), and we have the smallest bin they offer. Our recycling bin is 2x the size and always full. We also get by composting a lot (luxury of living out of town).

      1. Lot of the materials we stuff in our recycling bins is not actually recycled (plastics, I'm looking at you), we just do it to make us feel better. (some have called it wish-cycling). I'm glad municipalities are being more strict on what they accept for recycling. Brings home much stronger that a lot of what we consume is just plain garbage when it's done being used. Maybe that will help us reduce or reuse those items.

        1. Our provider recently cut back on the plastics and eliminated all glass.

          According to someone I know who works at the county facility, it came down to the fact that they can't find buyers for glass more than anything else. Apparently making new glass is a lot cheaper than recycling existing glass.

          I wonder if going back to a "return your bottles for a deposit" type of approach would make any fiscal sense?

          1. Reports like this one are alarming. I don’t know if depositing is the answer — I remember countless regular trips to the aluminum recycler when I was a kid — but it seems like something like that must be done to get the US to domesticate its plastic recycling industry.

            Sunil Bagaria, who runs recycling company GDB International, took his colleagues to task. "Forever, we have depended on shipping our scrap overseas," he bemoaned. "Let's stop that." European countries, he added, "are recycling 35% to 40% [of their plastic waste]. The U.S. only recycles 10%. How tragic is that?"

            1. Living in California, we have a deposit system for all cans and bottles already, and it doesn't actually do anything to change how I act. We get 5 cents a can/bottle, but that's just not enough of a difference to be worth the hassle to me, so we just put them in the recycling. That appears to be a common opinion among my neighbors, as everyone's recycle bins seem to usually be full of cans a bottles that could have been turned in.

      2. The neighbor across the street is a regional safety guy for Republic Services, and he said that about the only current user of recycled paper is for wrapping paper.

        Speaking of, we don't really do Xmas presents anymore (we instead give to needy families), but when we did, we had a tub for recycled bows, one for gift bags, and I had a small drawstring cloth "gift wrap" that I used for small items for Mrs. Runner.

        I attempt to reuse all baseball card team bags, top loaders, penny sleeves, as well as padded mailers when trading cards through the mail; I even know one trader that says he won't accept a trade if it's not in recycled holders. Btw, these make for handy card-carriers to/from the local baseball card shop.

  3. I am so looking forward to these posts. As a family, we are environmentally conscious, but our follow through can be a bit lax. I am hoping to gleam some new ideas/opportunities from you all as well as motivation to get moving on it all. One thing we have done as a business, is to add bins for compostable products. As a result, I would say we have moved about 80% of the weight of our regular garbage into the compostable bins. We are also into the compostable straws, cups and working on acceptable take out containers.

  4. What do people think of washing the recycling. I always question using drinking water to clean something that is being recycled.

    1. We rinse off things before recycling, but never/rarely wash. Leaving food residue may soil other things in the recycling and cause everything to be incapable of recycling. I try to not be obsessive about rinsing out containers and attempt to limit the amount of water used.

        1. We run it nightly, but because it tends to full every night. Washing in the dishwasher is a good idea because they're very efficient.

    2. This. How much energy am I spending by running hot water to repeatedly rinse out a crusty bottle of ranch dressing or salsa jar? I would love to hear the cost/benefit on this activity. And if that bottle isn't perfectly cleaned, is it not at all recyclable?

      We are egregious wishcyclers, I fear.

      1. We had a guy from St. Paul come to our office last year. Some things he said:

        1. No plastic bags. No flimsy plastic in general.
        2. Rinse off your recyclables, though don't have to make them spotless.
        3. Don't crush your cans. Makes it harder for the machines to detect what it is and it could get sorted into the wrong spot.

      2. One way to make the cleaning out a bit less energy-intensive would be to just use cold water. Our kitchen sink takes such a ridiculously long time to get warm water that I've just given up on almost ever having hot water in the kitchen, unless it's for something that really needs to be hot. Washing my hands and rinsing off dishes leads to some cold fingers, but I've now gotten so used to it now that I usually only use cold water when I'm elsewhere, too.

        1. Yes, we have the same issue in our house. I feel guilty running water for 5 minutes in our master bath before I get hot water for a shower. I usually jump in the cold shower early just to get wet enough for lathering up the shampoo and soap. Usually the water is finally warm when it comes time to rinse off. I thought about insulating all my hot water pipes, but that would involve climbing into a very hard to navigate crawl space that is just plain gross.

          1. Heh. I crawled around under my house to insulate my pipes this fall. I got bit by several spiders, found holes in my sub floor, discovered several plumbing issues, and got stabbed in the kidney by a steak knife. Good times.

      3. If you have use for an electric kettle (say, if you’re into fancy coffee), that’s a pretty convenient way to heat up enough water to rinse out the containers. Now, what the energy cost is to do that, I’m not sure. If yonder distant gigantic burning gas cloud sends you free power, who cares? If your juice comes from “clean” coal, the answer might be different.

        1. This is what I often do, as opposed to waiting many minutes for the water to heat up. I assume that, especially when the water usage is figured in, the kettle is better overall, even if it some part coal-fueled.

  5. Pepper, how are you using your plastic wrap? We've had these as an alternative for a few years, and, while they're not perfect, they're at least as good as plastic wrap in my opinion. They end up looking not very pretty quite quickly, but they're still working a few years on. Probably even better than they did at first, honestly.

    Stasher bags were all the rage at my in-laws Christmas this year too. And we've got a lot of pyrex and other glass storage for foodstuffs, and we try hard to keep our food in reusable containers. Philosofette is very good about encouraging our family in this regard.

    1. Switching us over to Pyrex has been a long-term project, but one I’m glad to work on. I wish the lids were more durable; invariably some have gotten warped, either by being microwaved (interesting, considering we don’t own a microwave), or through a vacuum created by putting too-warm food, cover firmly in place, into the fridge.

      1. Yeah, the lids definitely are the downfall. I'm guessing a person could find some replacement lids somewhere? We're on the cusp of needing to replace a bunch.

        I've been trying to use the bees wrap and such, above, to make up for covers. And that works if the leftovers or whatever are staying at home, but not so well if you're taking them to work or something.

        1. I just got two Pyrex replacement lids from a certain website I try not to use frequently but boasts having everything from A to Z. We try to make big meals on weekends so we don't have to cook much during the week, and I like a good, solid lid since I often need to stack containers to get everything to fit in the refrigerator.

          1. We have a bunch of silicone stretch lids that can adapt to different sizes of glassware and tupperware. They come in quite handy when lids go missing or get warped.

        2. I'm guessing a person could find some replacement lids somewhere?

          Amazon dot com is your friend. what these folks said.

    2. It's usually for wrapping cookie dough or pie crust that needs to be chilled for X amount of time before baking. But I might give your suggestion a try.

      I just encountered stasher bags for the first time over the weekend and am curious about them. Also, I love that as a gift idea. I'm trying to get myself in the habit of choosing gifts that are either experiences or otherwise aren't just creating more clutter. (I took care of my sister, her husband, and their three kids in one fell swoop for Christmas by giving them a membership to the Minnesota Children's Museum. They already have toys galore, and it's also a bit of a gift to my parents, who watch the two younger kids every Friday.)

      1. Just got Mrs. Runner some silicon bags for Christmas, and she's using them. Hopefully cut back on the ziplock bags, and hopefully thin the herd in the tupperware shelves.

  6. I’m so glad you suggested this, Pepper. I can relate to the frugal household of childhood. I still save Ziplocs, too — but I loathe washing them. I don’t mind our reusable sandwich wrappers or snack bags nearly as much, which is actually good incentive to use them, anyway.

    Of the 3 Rs, I find Reuse to be the one that is most challenging. Reduce (buy only what you need, and in low-footprint packaging if possible) is a good rule of thumb, and recycling is something I’m very keen to do well. The problem I have with reuse is that many of the suggestions I’ve come across are simply not useful or practical, particularly beyond an N of 1.

    We have reusable shopping bags, but even so, it amazes me how many plastic bags come our way. We save them up, then donate them to the Poissonnière’s school, where they can be reused to contain wet/soiled clothes, book orders, etc.

    For plastic wrap, I haven’t found a plastic-free solution I like. In fact, the plastic wrap available at the grocery store also feels like an inferior product — every time I use it when visiting my family, it never tears cleanly, leading to waste — so I’ve switched to the restaurant-grade stuff available at Costco. I try to make up for it by not using plastic wrap much. One package lasts me several years.

    Re: Resolable Shoes SelectShow
    1. I got a scuff on my Red Wing work boots. I like scraped off the top layer of leather, but not enough to expose the steel toe cap.

      Is this something does anyone know that I should look into getting fixed?

      1. My guess is the answer probably hinges on what you’re wearing the boots for, and whether the scuff is going to prematurely weaken the boot somehow. The boots I bought are my daily footwear every season except summer, and in every weather except snow/ice, where the wedge soles are treacherous. But, I have an office job, so my purchase criteria were durability, repairability, & fair labor; I’m not relying on them to protect my feet in some way beyond the typical.

        1. I mostly use them to do semi-dangerous tasks at the house - carrying lumber, using the chainsaw, etc.

          I'm worry mostly that I've ruined the waterproof-ness of them, because I specifically got that pair because they are waterproof

          1. I suppose it’s possible they’ve been compromised slightly, but I think waterproofing tends to come from a combination of the type of welt used, any interior lining, and any leather treatment applied to the boot. I’d look into whether there’s something you can do to the scuffed area to protect the leather that’s left, or take it to the local boot repair place (look for the Harleys) for a diagnosis.

    2. Weirdly, I enjoy washing Ziploc bags. It's very satisfying to take care of.

      I try to cut up old clothes/towels to use for cleaning rags, but at a certain point a person has enough! I recently read about some families that have stopped using paper towels, and I was really intrigued by that. They just keep a stack of cleaning cloths at hand instead (along the lines of flour sack towels) and then throw them in the laundry. Certainly this creates more laundry, but I feel like this is a change our family could probably attempt.

      And I keep meaning to buy or make some basic cloth napkins to use at meals. Honestly, for most meals we just skip napkins altogether, but then I end up grabbing paper towels when something is messy. I do have some really nice cloth napkins, but I need something I don't mind getting stained/used by the kids.

      1. At least the way we do composting, for our family, it seems like paper towels are a more friendly approach than using the laundry for cloth. But I don't really know. I'm very curious about whether my sense of that is correct.

    3. With no young kids at home, we have switched to nearly exclusive use of Pyrex storage containers for lunches and leftovers. Much easier to wash than ziplocks.

      1. The wife convinced me to get rid of ours when we moved because we didn't use them much and they were a hazard to kids. We bought a new set two weeks ago.

  7. I've been reusing egg cartons (i only get the paper kind) as fire-starters - insert a pine cone, wood chips, dryer lint and coat with melted wax from reused candles.

    And I've been using the same cup and plastic spoon, knife, and fork at my desk at work for the last 6 months.

    When I have to print something at home, I print on the back side of something else.

    There are still a lot of companies that send a paper bill and an envelope, even though I am enrolled in auto pay or pay online (Excel, Frontier, Viking Oil, MDC, etc.), (If they could send me an envelope without the plastic window, I could reuse those).

    We coined the term ATOTTISDOTT several years ago - I forget what the letters stand for now but it basically a small list of "if we need to go out for something, is there something else we could do on the same trip/route".

    I just started composting since the holidays. Coffee grounds, rinsed egg shells, any vegetable scraps. I've already emptied three tins into the compost heap.

    CT just passed a law prohibiting grocery stores from plastic bags, but they can charge 10cents for the paper bags - this really works to get people to bring cloth bags because cheapo Yanquis. I quit using those thin plastic bags at the grocery store for like big vegetables a long time ago.

    What's with the hugely-long receipts at CVS?

  8. My wife recently bought these reusable mesh bags with a drawstring which work great for getting and storing fruits and vegetables. If we do end up getting paper bags or plastic bags, we always reuse them as garbage liners or something like that.

  9. Our community started a composting program last year, and while we compost at home during the warm months, we don't during the winter. It's proving really easy to drop off the compost (the collection site is just a few blocks away), and I'm amazed at all the things they accept, including chopsticks, egg cartons, masking tape, and pizza boxes. Full disclosure: I've only seen the abbreviated list before looking it up right now, and I actually didn't know just how long the list was!

    1. We got a tumbling composter last year for kitchen scraps. It's a two-chambered one, and we've just now filled up the first chamber after a full year. We have separate green waste bins for yard waste that gets picked up weekly, so we just don't end up having all that much to put into it.

      1. This. I gave up on the compost pile years ago. Our green waste bin takes all our food scraps as well as yard waste.

  10. Great topic. My contribution will be of the cold water variety.

    So many of the "little" things we are urged to do have negligible or negative net effects when you work out the carbon bill and/or the economics.

    For example, I have been using reusable grocery bags since before California started requiring stores to charge for disposable ones. But the best research I have seen typically comes down (fairly strongly) on the side of disposable plastics.

    Another example is recycling paper. For years, when we got physical newspapers, I was very careful about recycling. But there is virtually no secondary market for waste paper. A lot ends up in landfills.

    My go-tos for having an environmental impact are (1) LED lightbulbs, (2) proper insulation and weatherstripping, (3) moderate use of the furnace and AC; (4) slowing down when driving; (5) tapwater instead of bottled (that was a big lift with my wife) and (6) regular car maintenance so that our cars last a long, long time.

    1. So many of the "little" things we are urged to do have negligible or negative net effects when you work out the carbon bill and/or the economics.

      I've been putting off writing something but basically this. If we reduced waste at the individual level for everyone on the planet, it still doesn't come close. We don't matter. However, I think reducing resource use at the individual level is useful to have as a mindset. For me, I'll do my part to eliminate everything I can but refuse to get stressed about wasting things while also agitating for larger-scale changes.

      But the best research I have seen typically comes down (fairly strongly) on the side of disposable plastics.

      What I've seen is it favors reusable bags, if you reuse them a lot. You need hundreds of uses to breakeven. I grew up using cloth bags so we might have gotten halfway to thousands. Now we have reusable plastic bags that are incredibly durable and should last until I lose them.

      1. Yes, my understanding is that the break even point on reusable bags requires many years of use.

        This article cites a Danish study estimating 37 uses as the break-even for polypropylene, which is a lot better than I recalled. Things are much, much worse for cotton.

      1. My car is a 2003, bought used maybe 8 years ago after my Saturn could not pass Smog. Hoping to get another 100,000 miles out of it, which is close to ten years. But I probably will only get another 5 or 6 until the Mrs decides she needs a new car.

        1. 14 years for my first car, 18 on my second; I'm assuming my current car (bought a year old in 2016) will be replaced by a self driving one.
          Just as important as making them last is getting a fuel efficient one in the first place.

          1. Our Subaru turns 12 in March. My Volvo was 9 years old when I bought it, 20 when I sold it. Our mechanic tells me the engine, which had 300,000+ miles on it when I sold it, lives on in another customer’s Turbo Brick.

            The Buick we inherited from Mrs. Hayes’ grandfather is 18 years old, but has only 75,000 miles; we got it in 2015 with 44,000 on the clock. At this rate, the Poissonnière might drive it. We really would like a second car that better suits our use — daily driver to/from public transit — and is more fuel-efficient & practical than a sedan (though two beach seats means it seats more than most SUVs on the road). A hybrid, electric car, or compact wagon would fit the bill. But I like not having a car payment better, and suspect extracting maximum use out of the car we have is more environmentally friendly than creating demand for a new one.

            My truck turns 53 this year. Assuming I could drive it, I think I’ve reached the point where I can’t take it on the highway. Manual brakes & no crumple zones don’t appeal to this father of a young kid.

          2. Our first vehicle (Tercel hatchback, bought new in 1987) made it to 2001. Our second (Saturn wagon, bought new in 1993) made it to around 2012. Our third (1998 Sienna, bought used in 2001), we sold around 2016.

            We do enjoy the quantum leaps in vehicle features, performance and durability we observe from purchase to purchase.

    2. I mean . . . cold water is more energy efficient, right? 😉

      I appreciate your comments and certainly I understand that the actions of individuals are hardly significant. Yet is there not something to be said for erring on the side of reusing? And perhaps taking these small steps helps us be in the mindset of being environmentally conscious, which can affect the candidates we vote for among other things that have the potential to lead to more significant changes.

      It's also helpful to know what your go-tos are!

      1. Yea, I don't mean to poop on acting locally. But I do think we need to be more intentional about what we choose to prioritize when acting locally. I see some friends and acquaintances who get very strident about symbolic acts of greenery that end up having negative environmental effects at the margin.

        I am never opposed to good intentions. I just think we should add a dose of analysis, be willing to bend to new evidence, and have humility about our personal ethics on these things (not implying anything about the conversation here, which has been, as with most of our conversations, pretty robust and thoughtful).

        1. bS, this actually gets to one of my biggest questions: what are the reliable sources for that information and analysis? I recognize that there's a ton of murky and downright wrong information out there on all kinds of environmental issues, so short of spending my free time reading scientific journals, what's the best way to stay on top of this?

          1. These are great questions, Pepper. I wish I had a great, one-stop shop answer.

            So much of the "sustainability" stuff seems either entirely devoid of any realistic economic thinking or excessively puritanical in approach.

            I get it that some people get joy out of being as frugal as humanly possible. I am cheap, but I don't fetishize frugality the way, say, many Depression-era people (like my parents) seem to.

            I like the idea mentioned by several in this thread that small-scale actions can shape attitudes and that attitudinal change is probably a key to accomplishing big changes in society.

            So I probably would advise not sweating the small stuff too much. If you feel good taking small steps, be open to contrary evidence but don't pay too much attention to complainers like me.

  11. Largely inspired by this post, tonight I repaired, rather than replaced, Philosofette's touch lamp. The dimmer switch had shorted, and I was able to obtain a replacement and rewire the lamp. Of course, I'm a little worried this will somehow lead to the house burning down from an electrical fire... but I'm reasonably confident I did things the right way.

    1. That's awesome! I love fixing things rather than throwing them away.

      In another life, I'd be a professional tinkerer with a little shop and people can bring me things - like a lamp - that don't work and I fix them.

      1. This, like most of these types of projects (in my experience), required some extra tinkering because certain pieces didn't fit correctly (a replacement ring was too small to fit over the screw, the replacement piece had wires in the wrong locations and order, etc. I actually concluded that I couldn't do it, multiple times. But it kept nagging at me, and eventually it all came together. That felt pretty darn good.

        1. Yeah, the lack of materials is always frustrating. A round trip to the hardware store is an hour minimum, so I tend to over-buy.

          1. Round trip here is even longer. I've gotten better about remembering to bring the piece I'm replacing, or at least take a photo of it with my phone.

            I've still got some plumbing to fix too... maybe I'll finally get to that this weekend. We had a pipe rust away on our laundry room tub, but it did so right above our sump pump pit, so the few times that it causes a problem, the water just goes there. The corroded pieces dropped into the pit and blew out the old sump pump, but we had a replacement on hand, and the whole thing has been real low priority ever since I cleaned up the initial mess.

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