We make an effort to minimize the trash we throw away, for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s beneficial for the environment to recycle as much as possible and find other uses for things (reduce, reuse, recycle), but the truth is that a lot of stuff that might otherwise find their way into the trash actually has some good second-time-around uses.
Here are twenty (or so) common items from around our house that you might expect to get thrown away but often finds a pretty useful second life in our home.
Glass bottles If these have easily resealable caps, we’ll use them to store homemade beverages like cider or kombucha. I have an array of different bottles that we use for these purposes. If it’s a nice bottle without a resealable cap, we’ll often save it and use it as a vase for a while.
Dryer lint, egg cartons, and candle remnants We take these three items and turn them into fire starters. They’re really great at getting a campfire or a small fire in our backyard fire pit going.
Just take the empty egg carton and stuff a bunch of dryer lint into each well. Melt the remnant candle wax together, then pour it into each well in the egg carton until there’s a sufficient amount to hold the dryer lint firmly in place. Let it dry.
Then, when you need to get a fire going, tear off one of the wells from the carton and light the paper end of it with your lighter or match of choice. This little ball of paper, wax, and lint will burn very hot for several minutes, giving you plenty of time to get twigs or kindling burning and thus giving you a nice start on your fire.
Cereal boxes This doesn’t happen nearly as often as it once did now that Sarah and I aren’t subscribed to any magazines, but we would often take cereal boxes, cut off the top and a bit of the sides, and convert them into magazine holders. It’s a great way to keep magazines organized on a shelf and makes it easy to pull out issues when you need them, as you can grab a box with the issue you want (or even the individual issue) without disrupting a full shelf of magazines.
Food-safe squeeze bottles As I mentioned in my condiment article earlier this week, food safe squeeze bottles are perfect for storing homemade condiment mixes like mayochup or fry sauce. Just thoroughly clean the container, then make your preferred condiment mix in a bowl and put that mix into the clean container. It can easily be labeled with a piece of masking tape.
Shoe boxes We find infinite uses for these! We use them to store craft items, old photos, board game prototype components, small games, art supplies, old notebooks, and all manner of other things. Shoeboxes do not get thrown away around here until they’re literally falling apart.
Spray bottles Bottles that previously contained things like Windex usually wind up with some kind of homemade cleaner in them. In a typical Windex bottle, if I’m making window cleaner, I’ll put in 1/4 cup white vinegar, 1/8 cup rubbing alcohol, two drops of dish soap, and fill it the rest of the way with water. This does a really good job of cleaning up the handprints and fingerprints of children off of windows.
Plastic milk jugs have a lot of uses. One particularly great use for them is to use them as a funnel with a “stopper” by cutting off the bottom of the jug and turning it upside down. You can put the cap on to keep stuff from flowing out of the hole and then remove the cap as needed. That makes old milk jugs perfect for tasks like refilling bird feeders, spreading grass seed, or spreading salt on a slick driveway. With the cap on, you can use it as a pet food scoop. I also sometimes save the caps for board game prototype pieces, as they’re basically like checkers.
Pickle jars and other glass jars I love making homemade pickles, homemade sauerkraut, and things of that nature. Used pickle jars are perfect for storing these in the fridge after making them. Again, simply slapping a piece of masking tape on the jar and writing what the contents are solves the labeling issue, and you can get many dozens of uses out of those jars before the lids stop working well. I also like storing leftover pasta sauce or pizza sauce or salsa in them.
Newspaper We rarely wind up with used newspaper these days, but when we do, I like to roll it into a super-tight bundle and then put masking tape around it in three or four places. This turns it into fantastic kindling for a fire, especially if you roll it super tight. You can build a small arrangement of these little newspaper “logs” and then start a fire with them using one of the egg carton fire starters mentioned earlier. Another thing you can do is cut the bundles into smaller pieces, with each piece held together by masking tape, and then dip the whole thing into excess candle wax (if you have extra from the process above). This kind of “waterproofs” the logs and makes it much easier to start a campfire when things are wet.
Shakers I often pick up interesting spice mixes while traveling, but I rarely discard the jar when it’s empty. Instead, I use those bottles to store common spices I buy in bulk from the local food co-op (or a rare visit to a spice store). I also sometimes use them to store my own homemade spice mixes. As I mentioned, a bit of masking tape and a Sharpie provides a super-inexpensive label so you know what the contents are.
Small pill bottles We often buy aspirin and ibuprofen in larger jumbo-sized containers, then distribute them into smaller pill bottles for keeping in various homemade first aid kits. For example, I keep a small bottle of ibuprofen in my backpack, there’s one with our camping supplies, and there’s another in each of the glove boxes in our cars. Again, a masking tape label never hurts.
T-shirts and highly worn clothing Used clothing items that are just too worn out for Goodwill make for a great rag bag for cleaning up nasty messes. Old t-shirts make for great kitchen/liquid rags and can actually be reused a bunch of times if you spend a few minutes putting an edge on them with a sewing machine. Most of our old clothes wind up in a literal rag bag, though, useful for all kinds of messes and situations indoor and out.
Children’s pools We’ve taken used children’s pools, flipped them over, cut a few small holes in them and cut them to size, and used them to cover our garden in the spring. This keeps the weeds from competing with our little seedlings and also keeps a lot of weeding effort at bay. They won’t last forever but they’ll certainly do the job for a couple of growing cycles, and it gets a lot of additional use out of a kiddie pool with a few leaks in it. Another good use is to use it as the bottom layer in the trunk of a car or the back of a minivan so you can carry around potentially messy things like wood or mulch, drastically minimizing the mess. You can do the same things with an old shower curtain.
Plastic grocery bags Although we usually take reusable bags to the store, sometimes we wind up with plastic grocery bags. Those usually wind up as the lining for small trash cans (with a few empty bags stuffed in the bottom of the can so that there’s always a replacement bag right there) or else used to help clean up pet waste (just invert the bag over your hand to form a “glove,” then pick up the waste and revert the bag, then tie it off… easy as can be).
Children’s wagons Our children have a wagon that they’ve long outgrown, but we keep it around for several reasons. It’s really useful for toting gardening tools and yard tools around the yard and back to the garage after we’re done. It’s useful for carrying heavy bags of seed or mulch or soil to the place where they’re needed. Basically, if there’s something heavy or bulky that needs to be moved around the yard, we just grab the old wagon.
Toothbrushes and electric toothbrush heads When those items start to get really worn out from use, they get relegated to a box of cleaning supplies. They’re perfect for cleaning small, hard-to-reach spots, like the edges of faucets or around the back of the toilet or in grout.
There are many things that seem like they’re used up and ready to be thrown away, but in reality they have many more uses still left in them. Don’t give into your instinct to just toss stuff in the trash or the recycling bin. Instead, ask yourself if there’s not a second use for this item. Do it with everything you might throw away for a few weeks and see what you figure out. Not only will you reduce the volume of materials you’re putting into landfills or even into the recycling system, you might find uses that keep you from spending money on a useful item (like a funnel or a bottle of Windex).