One of the more important parts of “acting locally” to do your bit towards helping Planet Earth is by reducing waste. You are probably aware of the negative effects of landfills: more and more valuable land being taken up just by rubbish, and the associated problems of groundwater being contaminated by leachate. Yes, the people who design landfills take leachate into account, but do you really want to take this risk?
The best way to reduce waste is not to throw so much stuff into the waste system. Much of what goes into the landfill doesn’t need to be in there. Kitchen waste, green waste and paper make up a huge percentage of the rubbish in a landfill – and these items can very easily be recycled or composted instead.
But there’s more to recycling than dropping your old newspapers off at the local paper recycling depot and putting lawn clippings and carrot tops into a compost heap. As we all know, the three Rs of waste are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The “reuse” stage is one that often gets overlooked.
For some items, reusing them is straightforward. A sip-top bottle that once held bottled water can easily be refilled from your regular drinking water supply – or with fruit juice. Glass jam jars can be washed out and used for storing dry goods or for making your own jams and jellies. Ice cream containers (and anything else with an airtight lid) are perfect for freezing items or for lunch boxes. Gift wrapping paper can be used multiple times before it’s too battered and tatty to use. And if you don’t use items this way, there’s bound to be a charity that will!
After reusing the obvious things in obvious ways, it’s time to get creative. Things don’t have to be reused for the purpose that they were originally made. Here’s a just a few suggestions that have worked for me:
Small yoghurt containers: holders for paper clips or drawing pins, pottles for starting seedlings before planting out.
Large clear plastic drink bottles: Cut the spout off and use as a cloche for winter vegetables (use the cut off spout as a funnel)
Drink bottles with handles (e.g. milk bottles): cut in half and use as a scoop for washing powder, sugar or flour – or garden fertiliser.
Mesh bags from onions or oranges: roll into a ball and use for scrubbing pots. My recycled pot-scrub lasted much longer than a conventional Brillo bad or steel wool scrubber.
Pizza boxes: these are the perfect size for holding A4 papers. Good for documents, kid’s drawings or even old letters (the pizza scent will evaporate before long).
Old clothes: cut off buttons and zips before using the cloth as dusters, dish rags or for polishing cars.
Old sheets: These usually have a lot of good fabric on either side of the rip that inevitably happens – this can be remade into pillow cases or even children’s pyjamas.
Old towels: use for pet bedding or as a biodegradable weed mat.
Old stained carpet: weed mat, pet bedding or in the garage for your amateur car mechanic (most families have one of these) to lie on while tinkering underneath a car.
Ice cream containers and one litre yoghurt containers: organisers for children’s crayons, felt tip pens, play dough, stamps.
Anything thin and shiny: children’s art projects and collage.
Old rubber gloves: cut up for thick, durable and colourful rubber bands.
One word of warning: don’t hang onto an item just because it might be useful for something. I had to clear up my late grandmother’s house after a lifetime of this principle and it was absolutely chaotic (well, can you think of a use for old trays from airline meals?). If you can’t think of a use, even with your best efforts, then recycle the item if possible or, as a last-ditch resort, throw it away. You can only use so many flour scoops and funnels.
Don’t forget that the “reusing” can be done by other people. If you no longer need an item that is in still pretty good condition, don’t throw it into the tip. Sell it on E-Bay or a similar site if possible, hold a garage sale or give it away to charities. Even ripped old clothing can be given away to charity organisations – these get shredded for reuse (as carpet underlay and stuffing or even in paper manufacture) or sent to manufacturing plants to clean machinery – soft old T-shirts and sheets are perfect.
This last point may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it’s astonishing how many people throw perfectly useable things into the tip. At my local tip (aka resource recover centre), you are charged by weight for rubbish disposal (they weigh you going in, then weigh you going out). The few times I’ve gone in, I’ve almost been able to pick up enough good stuff from other people’s waste to significantly reduce my tip fee. And I’m sure that if I waited for long enough, I could drive out heavier than I came in. Yes, it takes a bit of chutzpah to ask a perfect stranger “You’re not going to throw that out, are you? Can I have it?” but most people don’t mind. Items I’ve scored this way include a near-new pillow, a child’s bicycle, skis, a single bed and some wallpaper that was perfect for card making. What can you find?