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Ask EcoGirl

A syndicated eco-advice column
Written by Patricia Dines

"Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone!"

"Making it easy to be green!"

This Month's Column:
Let's Play The Reuse Game!

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Let's Play The Reuse Game!

By Patricia Dines
Published in the Sonoma County Gazette
February 2012
(c) Patricia Dines, 2012. All rights reserved.

OK, today dear readers I'm going to tell you about a fun new activity I've developed that I call "The Reuse Game."

To start playing it, just identify some items that you're ready to discard, then consider how you or someone else could still use them. For each item you reuse, you score a Good Karma point on Gaia's Scoreboard, one of the most satisfying places I know to gather credit.

You can also invite others to play with you, just by asking them for ideas. How lovely for all of us to get rewarded for treating the earth's gifts with respect!

Why Reuse Matters

Too often, people believe that being ecological means just recycling and buying new "green" products. But, while these actions are helpful, they're not enough. That's because every product we buy causes some eco-harm, including polluting our air and water, poisoning our fish and food, hurting nature's creatures, and generating lots of trash. Green products just do less of this.

Therefore, steering our culture towards eco-sanity requires that we also reduce the quantity of products that we use. To help us do this, we can follow the simple mantra, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Thus we first need to seek to Reduce how much we buy and Reuse (fully use) each item before we Recycle.

How to Earn Game Points

So, to get you started, here are some easy ways that you can earn points in The Reuse Game.

1) Make damaged items usable again. For instance, you can:

• Fix it. The dial of my space heater recently broke and I wondered if I should trash it. But then I saw a phone number on it, called it, and for just a few bucks got a new dial. Often it's that simple to get something working again!

• Adapt it. When the on/off knob of my living room lamp became flaky, I realized that every night I was turning on several lights by hand. So I got a plug strip to easily turn them on all at once.

• Update it. Instead of buying a new table, you might refinish or repaint your current one. You can also turn jeans into shorts, a chipped plate into an art piece, or old shirts into rags.

Once I had a classic wood spice rack that was too bedraggled for a thrift store to want. But I refinished it (which I enjoyed) and sold it at my yard sale to a young couple who loved it. It made me so happy to see it beautiful again, appreciated, and going to a new home.

2) Before recycling something, consider if someone else can use it. For instance, unwanted computers aren't allowed in the trash so folks often drop these at e-waste events. However, these programs usually just recycle items. While this keeps toxics out of landfills and recovers some raw materials, it loses much of the investment in creating the computer.

Thus I encourage you to first look for places that can reuse your tech, such as local schools or Santa Rosa's CRC, which repairs, resells, and donates such equipment, www.CRC.org.

3) Get to know the various places where you can sell and donate used items, including Craig's List, consignment stores, and thrift stores. (See more about this at www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl2a.html.)

4) Be creative in offering your items for reuse. At the moment when something is headed for the trash or recycling, The Reuse Game is just getting started! Here are some of my successful reuse ideas, to spark your creativity.

• Magazines, newspapers, and books. I drop these at my gym, laundromat, and doctors' offices, for others to read.

• Tincture bottles. I wash and gather these to sell at my yard sales, where they're found by folks making herbal formulas.

• Medical supplies. These can be expensive but hard to offer for reuse. However my local senior center was delighted to put them out for their visitors to take.

• Plastic shopping bags. A local thrift store was thrilled to have my extras. [If it's in good condition, I also sometimes bring them back to the store that gave it to me, and ask if they would reuse it.]

I also put oddball items on my yard sale "free" table, and have been so happy to see people make use of them. This includes a woman who took a cardboard protein powder container to send cookies to her son, and another person happy to get little bottles of hotel shampoo.

5) Complete the loop by buying other people's used items. You can often get a good deal on something unique while connecting with other local folks.

I hope that these ideas get you excited about playing this game. You'll be amazed at how many great options exist! You might also want to set aside a spot in your garage for items awaiting new homes. For more tips and resources, see www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl5f.html. [That's this page. See more information below!]

• • •

Ask EcoGirl is written by Patricia Dines, Author of The Organic Guides, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter. Email your questions about going green to <EcoGirl [at] AskEcoGirl.info> for possible inclusion in future columns. View past columns at <www.AskEcoGirl.info>.

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"EcoGirl: Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone."

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2012. All rights reserved.


There's lots of info here -- so feel free to just skim to find those items of most interest to you! I have grouped this into categories to help with that objective.


• SCRAP, a creative reuse center in San Franciso. This program looks cool! It accepts donations of craft supplies, including paper, textiles, buttons, office supplies, plastics and wood. It "teaches the value of creative reuse by proving art supplies, workshops, and educational field trips to teachers and students in the Bay Area." They have events, such as monthly giveaways to teachers, as well as educational field trips, workshops, volunteer opportunities, etc. www.scrap-sf.org and www.facebook.com/scrapsf

> Su Feb. 12 1-4p is their "Creative Reuse Valentines Day Arts and Crafts Fundraiser & Party" for adults and kids. Su 2/12 1-4p https://www.facebook.com/events/190031854426752

"As much arts-related as it is environmental, creative reuse demonstrates that artistic creativity and learning can take place anywhere and everywhere -- and with all manner of materials -- and that "junk" has value for those who can see meaning beyond the discarding of things. As a response to ever-filling landfills, overproduction, and diminishing natural resources the ethos of creative reuse is shared by all SCRAP'ers."

• Sweets From Your Sweet? How To Reuse Your Valentine's Day Candy Box! http://blog.greenearthbamboo.com/20110214/green-is-grand/sweets-from-your-sweet-how-to-reuse-your-valentine's-day-candy-box/

Note: I also have general tips for being green on Valentine's Day at www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl3f.html.


• The Story of Stuff. This engaging and useful video helps us really see the life cycle impacts of every product we buy. Watch it yourself, then share it with others.


There are many local resources to help you offer and access reuse. I have listed the key ones in this column www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl2a.html. Also check out:

Sonoma County's very helpful Recycling Guide (www.recyclenow.org, 707-565-3375)

• Sonomax (www.sonoma-county.org/news/sonomax.htm) for various business and construction materials

Windsor's Industrial Reusable Materials (707-836-1692) for cabinets, doors, sinks, and more

Petaluma's Recycletown (www.garbage.org, 707-795-3660) for used building materials, furniture, bikes, and more; and

• The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse (www.creativereuse.org, 510-547-6470) for paper goods, crafts, and more.

• www.ecologycenter.org/directory has lots of local resources, in this category and beyond.

Also see what the product manufacturer offers. For instance, Patagonia has an innovative program to help customers repair their items, sell them to others, and return worn items for recycling into new fabric. www.patagonia.com/us/common-threads.


• Metal hangers, and paper covered ones. Offer them to your local dry cleaner.

• Used pencils. One day I saw that the library offered pencils to patrons and asked if they'd like more; they said yes. Woo hoo, another point on my scoreboard!

• Broken dish or pottery. Use as a pot, saucer, or other decoration in your garden. Or offer them to an artist that does mosaics or other pieces that might be able to use what you have.

• Old shower curtain liner. Use it as a drop cloth under a painting or staining project, or other messy project.

• Scrap paper. I've previously talked about my reuse system for paper. (See "Organizing for Eco-Success, www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl3i.html.) I've since added a new step for my scrap quarter pages -- dropping them at my gym's front desk, for them to give to customers for notes. I saw that they offered these to folks, asked if they needed more, and they said yes. So I just put them in an outer pocket of my gym bag and drop them off when I'm there.

• Eyeglasses. If you can't use the frame for your new lenses, you can donate them to the Lion's Club. Look for a branch in your area.

•  For creative ideas for reusing old clothes at the end of their cycle, see www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/09/green-cleaning-37-reuses_n_165129.html. For instance, you can make a hacky sack from a sock or turn gloves into wrist warmers.

• COMPOST! Turn your green waste and veggie scraps into rich soil. Ask your garbage provide if they have a green can for such items and what you can put in there. You can even compost your own materials, and create rich lush soil for yourself. For more on this, see www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/index.htm

•  A local group recently invited members to donate unwanted plates and cups for use at their events. What a great idea!

• Scrap wood at construction sites. I used to find really great wood pieces there, with which I built work tables in my office. They're custom designed to the size I want, low-cost, refinished with non-toxic materials -- oh, and ecological!

• Metro cards turned into amazing art. Here's cool example of creative reuse, way beyond what you'd expect. "Ever take the metro. . and wonder where all the cards go?" http://subwayartblog.com/2011/03/15/metrocard-collages-by-nina-boesch/


• "Greening Our Techno-Tools." For more tips for greening your use of today's techno-tools, including computers, phones, stereo equipment, and more. www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl2j.html

• ReUseConnection Facebook page. Has ongoing posts about reuse. www.facebook.com/ReUseConnection

• "How to recycle plastics they won't pick up at the curb", Environmental Defense Fund http://solutions.edf.org/2011/12/19/how-to-recycle-what-they-won't-pick-up-at-the-curb/

• "Remodeling Green on the Cheap." www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl1c.html

• www.earth911.com has lots of reuse and recycling options and ideas.

You can also find lots of creative ideas online. Just search online for your particular reuse item, such as "reuse sweater."


Through this process, you can also notice that you're accumulating lots of certain types of items and see a way to REDUCE your generation of these from the start.

For instance, I noticed that I was accumulating more plastic shopping bags that I needed. First I kept them for my yard sale, so people could have them to take things home. Then I offered them to my local thrift store, who was delighted to have them.

But I started to wonder why I was accumulating so many shopping bags in the first place. I realized that I was bringing my cloth bag to the grocery store, but NOT to other stores, for instance when I went shopping for household items or clothes.

So I made more of a commitment to bring my bag whenever I went shopping (some bags even fold up so they can always be in your purse). Thus I've been able to reduce my use of shopping bags from the start.


Reuse usually describes when an item is kept in its original form, such as when a sweater goes to a new owner or milk bottles are returned to the dairy to be refilled. But -- there are two other terms you might hear as well.

Upcycling is when value is added to an item, for instance when someone turns a chipped plate into an art piece, broken computer parts into jewelry, a record album into a clock, or fabric scraps into a woven rug. We like upcycling even more than reuse or recycling!

Downcycling is when an item is used in a way that the embedded value in an item is reduced. So for instance, if a bottle is treated as just glass, we reclaim the raw material but lose the energy used to make it into a bottle. Thus, recycling is often actually downcycling.

While downcycling is better than nothing, it's much preferable to first upcycle and reuse to retain as much of the embedded value as we can.


Before buying something new, consider if you really need it.

If you do need it, look first to buy it used.

If you do buy it new or used, buy quality and reusable, not single-use disposable. So instead of paper towels, buy cloth dish towels. Buy high quality tools which last longer, work better, and don't keep breaking so that you end up having to buy them repeatedly.


Systems can help your game/process go smoothly and easily.

• So for example, I have a section of the garage setup for items that I'm ready to sell or give away. Then I can look at what I have and think about the best place to offer it. It also helps keep my mind straight about what I'm keeping for myself and what I'm ready to part with, instead of having them all mixed together.

I group my giveaway items in boxes by category. So they're labelled kitchen items, books, magazines, office supplies, clothes, CDs and videos, etc. I have them all on 6' folding tables that I bought at a good price used from Craig's List (another example of reuse). Having them organized helps me know what I have, and protects them until they're ready to move on. Plus it helps me feel orderly and calm, so that it's not just undifferentiated pile.

Then one day I might decide to do a Goodwill run, and I can gather what fits their criteria quickly and get on the road, without having to decide if I'm ready to get rid of it or getting entangled in other projects.

•  I also have a box set aside for items that need repair -- sewing and gluing by me -- or that need a repair person. That reminds me of those tasks so I can ask for help and take action.

•  I also have rattan baskets by the front door with reuse items for the farmers market, such as strawberry baskets and egg cartons. Then I just grab these as I head out to the market, and offer them to farmers there.

For more about this topic, you might like to read my column "Organizing for Eco-Success," which describes how you can use systems to turn your good intentions into actions and habits. I illustrate it with two easy examples: setting up your home recycling setup and fully using your printer paper. www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl3i.html


> I invite you to share your creative reuse success stories. Just email me at EcoGirl [at] AskEcoGirl.info and put "EcoGirl reuse" in the Subject line.


I'm delighted to offer you my Ask EcoGirl booklets, "Healthier Housecleaning" and "Detoxing Your Life." These unique, handy, and cheerful resources bring together key information you need to create a healthier home for your family and the planet. They make a great gift, and quantity discounts and wholesale prices are available. Plus all sales support my eco-healing community work. Tell a friend! Find out more at www.askecogirl.info/booklets.html.

I hope that you find this information useful. I welcome your throughts and feedback!

You can email me at ecogirl [at] askecogirl.info! You can also ask to be on my email article alerts list or connect via Facebook at www.facebook.com/AskEcoGirl.

For more information on this and related eco-topics, see my other Ask EcoGirl columns.

For more about my writing in general, on eco-issues and more, see my What's News page.

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Page last updated 2/1/2012