5 tips for sustainable repurposing

During this month of low-spend, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I have and how to make greater use of it. Although I didn’t necessarily think it then, I now realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a household where “elbow grease” was the prescribed solution for any burnt pan or sticky mess and where a piece of clothing hadn’t served its purpose in life until it had been worn, ripped, patched, worn again, and then used to wipe oil off my dad’s lawn mower. My parents and their parents before them had grown up poor. And being poor meant using everything you had and never wasting a thing. For them though, I can only imagine this decision was purely economic, driven by the need to stretch each dollar. But what they may not have realized is just how sustainable their waste not, want not lifestyle really was. So, as I transition to a low-impact lifestyle, I’m trying to channel some of my inner penny-pincher and striving to put every resource to its fullest use.

One of the simplest ways to get more life out of any household item is learning to DIY. You don’t have to be some crafter extraordinaire to DIY. You just need access to the internet and a little extra time on your hands. A simple and cheap example of this is multi-surface cleaner. Tired of all the chemicals and spending money on products whose companies I knew didn’t have my health or the environment in mind, I started making my own surface cleaner out of distilled water, white vinegar, lemon juice, and essential oils. For me, this was a natural and convenient switch. White vinegar costs under $4 per gallon and can be used for so many household cleaning needs, like dish soap and even removing salt stains from leather shoes. Plus, the solution itself is also very environmentally friendly, with all ingredients being chemical-free, 100% compostable, and available in recyclable packaging. And yes, to answer your question, it really does work.

Another easy DIY project is making your own makeup and nail polish wipes. On top of their non-recycle plastic packaging, makeup wipes themselves contain serious amounts of plastic. In fact, wipes are the cause of 93% of drain blockages in the UK alone and in 2018, there was a 400% (yes, 400%) increase in the occurence of makeup wipes washing up on beaches. For me, the saddest part of this situation is that makeup wipes are totally unnecessary—a ploy made up by companies to sell more product. Water, soap, and a washcloth do an equally good job removing makeup, not to mention cost you and the earth a lot less in the long-run. But if you do prefer the size and contouring of a wipe, consider making your own. All you’ll need are some old clothes—preferably something soft—and a sewing machine. Litterless has a great tutorial on this and while she seems to have purchased her material, keep in mind that using something you already have is always the more sustainable option.

While we’re on the topic, I should mention that sewing is a truly underrated skill. I cannot count the number of times sewing has saved my favorite shirt or underwear from ending up in the trash. What’s more, basic stitching is so easy to learn and once you know how, you become a mending machine. There are of course great video tutorials online and, if its an option, consider taking a local sewing or design course to really master the art.   

Next on the list is cooking. Americans are responsible for over 1.3 billion pounds of food waste per year. To put that in perspective, that’s 30-40% of the entire world’s food waste. Yeah, we wasteful AF. Just like sewing, learning how to cook can mean the difference between very ugly-looking, ripe bananas and delicious banana bread. Unless food has truly gone bad or is inedible, it’s important to try to make the most of it. Lemon rind, for example, can be used to make a basic cake, deluxe. Squishy cucumber can be added to a smoothie. And soft carrots can be seasoned and baked for a healthy and hardy meal. So before you throw something away, type, “What can you do with ________” into Google and see if there’s an alternative to the can. Or, if you really can’t stomach it, hop on an app like BUNZ to give your food to someone who can put it to good use.

Lastly, I want to mention that not all sustainable repurposing is DIY. One of my favorite and most affordable switches is repurposing glass jars. While I made the mistake of going out and buying new jars and containers when I first started transitioning, I quickly found that after a few months of peanut butter, olives, and pesto, I had more than enough containers for meal prepping, food storage, and carrying my lunches to work. Best of all, it didn’t cost me anything extra.

The moral of the story? Just like us, our stuff isn’t here to serve a single purpose. That’s why it’s so important we use our clothes, food, and household items to their furthest capacity, caring for them as best we can and knowing ways to repurpose them when they do eventually reach their limits.  

– A

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