This question was posted on a discussion board recently. Not only do I reuse many physical objects, but I can reuse the list I made for that discussion as an article on my own Website!
Glass juice bottles are wonderful, too. I snagged 7 of them during my big recycling project in 2002, and I’m still using them daily for juice to drink with my lunch at work. Refilling them from a half-gallon pitcher mixed up from concentrate at home costs less than half as much as buying new single-serving bottles of juice.
We reuse various types of food containers to buy food from the bulk section of our co-op store (you scoop from a bin into your container, after weighing it empty and writing its weight on the label so the cashier can subtract it and charge you only for the food). It’s fun deciding what’s the best container for which food. There are products we haven’t bought in years whose containers we’re still using: raisins in a glass Maxwell House instant coffee jar, oats in the huge plastic jar that held 4 pounds of generic peanut butter, etc. We buy organic, fair-trade coffee in smallish plastic Folgers coffee canisters that I snag from the recycling bin at work. I also snag the jumbo-size Folgers canisters (their lids seal really well, and they’re shaped for easy lifting) to store the pasta and rice we buy in 5- or 10-pound bags at a food-service supply store. The big plastic jars from some brands of pretzels are ideal for storing large amounts of spaghetti because they are tall enough for it and they close tightly. (UPDATE: We have learned that these containers are, sadly, not mouse-proof. If mice get into your pantry, they can gnaw through plastic jars and canisters!! But since pasta and rice are foods you’re going to boil before eating, if the mice haven’t left droppings or bits of plastic in them we think they’re still safe. Just transfer them to a new container and hide it in a closed cabinet.)
I cut up old cotton knit clothes to make hankies or cloth wipes for assorted personal uses. Last time, I was left with some shreds of pretty fabric from the edges, so I used them as cushioning for a gift I was mailing to my mom–rather than wrap it, I just put it in an envelope and stuffed the gaps with the fabric scraps.
Old pantyhose make great lint filters for the washing machine: Just slip one leg over the end of the drain hose and tie it into place. They’re also good for storing onions: Put an onion in the foot, tie a knot above it, put in another onion, tie a knot, and so on until you have a chain of onions you can hang from a hook. Being separated helps to keep the onions from spoiling.
We made our own Christmas tree out of a cardboard box and the green plastic bags the Sunday paper comes in.
When Nicholas was a baby, he had hours of fun playing with shaker-toys made from the cardboard canisters with plastic lids that some foods come in, with a bottle cap or something like that inside.
My Girl Scout troop designed a restaurant as part of the Cooking badge and held a “grand opening” where we served “free samples” of the foods we’d made. All the dishes we used were food packaging the girls and I had saved, which would otherwise have been recycled or trashed, and which got this one additional use before it met that fate. It was fun seeing the variety of dishes we collected and deciding which was best for what food! I later started saving the plastic dishes from frozen meals to use as snack plates at home.
I save business reply mail envelopes that I’m not going to use, and I give one to each Girl Scout patrol (small group within the troop) to collect their dues money. Each girl writes on the envelope her name and how much she paid. That way I just toss the sealed envelopes into my bag and don’t have to count the money until I get home! UPDATE: During the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found these envelopes handy for setting out cash to reimburse my neighbor when she picks up groceries for us on her shopping trips, and she’s been doing the same when I bring her things from a store.
The thin cardboard boxes from cereal and other foods are great material for making name tags. I like to start the first Girl Scout meeting of the year by setting out some boxes, scissors, a hole-puncher, a ball of string, and markers, and telling the girls, “Make name tags.” They figure it out and feel pretty clever!
When we moved, I bought new pink dishcloths to match our new kitchen and demoted the old ones (green and other colors) to bathroom cleaning cloths. As they get worn out, they become “rags” that get one last use for some yucky job and then get thrown away. Worn-out socks also make great disposable cleaning rags.
We use produce bags over and over again until they tear or something gets moldy in them. After using the produce, we put the bag into one of our canvas tote bags that we use for grocery shopping so that we’ll take it back to the store next time.
We use liner bags from cereal, crackers, etc., to store homemade frozen foods; they’re good, tough bags. We generally throw away those after one extra use, but zip-top plastic food bags average at least 5 uses each in our house–we just keep shaking out crumbs and rinsing or washing if necessary.
Family-size yogurt buckets have a bunch of uses: bath toys, buckets for outdoor play, temporary plant pots, diluting the vinegar to wash my hair, soaking cloth pads or nosebleed hankies in cold water, soaking other small stained items in Oxi-Clean, mixing up wonder-cleaner, rinsing the kid’s hair. . . . We keep a yogurt tub next to the kitchen sink as the compost bucket (temporary storage of food scraps destined for outdoor compost bins) and keep washing and reusing it until something gets really yucky in it or it’s stained by coffee grounds, and then it gets recycled. UPDATE: Many cities no longer accept polypropylene, #5 plastic, in curbside recycling collection–so check your program’s rules and don’t contaminate your recycling! If you can’t put out #5 at curbside, look for another option–here’s what you can do with #5 in Pittsburgh.
Even with all those uses, we have a lot more yogurt buckets than we can use (because I love yogurt, and the plastic is pretty durable) as well as other random food containers with tight-fitting lids, so we bring these to church and stash them in the kitchen. When people want to take home leftovers after a potluck or other event, there are containers available, with no worries about remembering to return them. (This is an ideal way to get rid of that one container that is a slightly different size from any of your others so won’t stack with them and always gets you confused about which lid to put on it!!)
We save take-out soup containers, similar to yogurt tubs but made from clear polypropylene in 3 different depths with interchangeable lids, to bring home leftovers from restaurants. In a pinch, we use yogurt tubs for that purpose and tape on a label (that is, write on scrap paper and stick it on with an excess return-address label!) to show it’s not yogurt in the fridge.
We prefer paper milk cartons to plastic jugs because the milk tastes better and we’ve read that milk in an opaque container retains more nutrition. After finishing the milk, we rinse the carton, open the top all the way, and set it on the floor next to the kitchen trash. Non-compostable food scraps (like moldy cheese or inedible horror-dessert) go in there, and the carton then gets folded shut so the food won’t leak into the trash bag and make a mess when the trash is carried out.
I’ve made some unique fridge magnets by cutting amusing panels from comic strips and gluing them to magnets. There are two ways to do it:
- Take a flexible magnet with an ad on it, which is at least as big as your cartoon. Remove (or at least de-gloss) the ad with nail polish remover. Let dry. Use white glue to stick cartoon to magnet. Let dry. Cut off any excess magnet. Coat top surface with clear nail polish. This whole process will go more smoothly if you happen to have an old cookie sheet or other flat metal surface to which you can stick the magnets to keep them flat while you’re applying stuff to them and letting them dry.
- Glue cartoon to thin cardboard from a cereal box or clothing package. Let dry. Coat top surface with clear nail polish. Hot-glue or rubber-cement back of cardboard to a small round or bar magnet.
Use the pictures from old/unwanted calendars as art to hang on your walls. If you’re not going to frame them, use an X-Acto knife and ruler to cut them from the binding so the cut edge is nice and straight. This was my main source of home decor when I was in college, but I forgot to include this tip until I saw it on another site! Here’s Kara’s article with nice example photos.
Plastic plates and catering trays often are made of polystyrene (#6 plastic) which is not accepted by most recycling programs. If you need lightweight dishes that store compactly–great for picnics and parties–these will hold up to many uses, although they’re not dishwasher-safe and not great for hot foods. Another use for these plates is as drip-catching saucers under potted plants.
If you happen to have an old door, it makes a great table! You can buy legs to attach, but we just use ours on the floor when we need a large work surface for cutting fabric, coloring a poster, or similar projects. The rest of the time, it can lean against a wall somewhere out of the way.
Clear vinyl packages with zippers, used to package some blankets, are handy if you need to store smallish clothing (like tights or baby clothes) in a cabinet, shelf, or large drawer where they’re always rolling out and getting lost.
Cloth drawstring or hook-and-loop closure bags, used to package some sheet sets, are great for keeping together toys that have lots of small pieces, like wooden trains and their tracks, a small set of blocks, or the little people and furniture for a toy building.
Here are some links to other people’s creative reusing ideas (I add to this frequently–check back!)
- Turn plastic shopping bags into yarn for craft projects!
- Turn an old coat into teddy bears.
- Make paper mache out of cardboard egg cartons.
- Ten different ideas for glass jars.
- Polystyrene (#6 plastic) containers from fresh produce, take-out salads, etc. can be used for shrink-plastic art.
- The tin from Starbucks mints is exactly the right size to hold cotton swabs. So is the plastic container from Mentos gum.
- Use an old cereal box to make a tray for transporting and serving baked goods.
- Use an old plastic bottle to make a scoop or luggage tags.
- Turn an old oatmeal box into attractive storage for extra toilet-paper rolls.
- Lots of uses for plastic cereal box liners.
- Use the zippered clear vinyl bags from bedding to store games whose boxes have been damaged.
- Use the silverware caddy from an old dishwasher to organize desk supplies, and use cardboard corner reinforcements from an appliance box to make a book rack.
- Make a gift bow from a magazine page.
- Many uses for junk mail.
- Turn a stained T-shirt into a pretty outer layer.
- Use a depleted gift card as a dish scraper.
- Make an old dress shirt into cloth napkins.
- Make old pillowcases into boxer shorts.
- Make a pair of adult jeans into adult shorts plus two little-girl skirts.
- Lots of uses for empty food canisters.
- Turn an old T-shirt into a tote bag.
- Use the sleeves of an adult’s long-sleeved shirt to make pants for a baby.
- Use old mini-blinds to make marker stakes for your garden.
- The Grocery Cart Challenge site has a 10 Ways to Reuse feature with a different item each week.
- 8 ways to use old tissue boxes (Of course, tissues are only for guests and emergencies, because handkerchiefs are so much cuter and nicer on the nose! You can store them in an old tissue box.)
- Make a handwashing station for a place with no sink using a gallon plastic jug, old pantyhose, and a golf tee.
- Make old sweaters into a scarf and mittens.
- Make an expensive-looking planter out of an oatmeal box, newspapers, and leftovers from other projects.
- Here are 7 practical uses for crappy food you might not want to eat!
- Make floral decorations out of old detergent bottles.
- Use the elastic from an old fitted sheet to make handy bowl covers for leftover food.
- Here are ways to reuse flat tennis balls and the canister they came in, plus egg cartons and old bottles.
- The International Junk Model Hall of Fame showcases fun things kids have built out of trash!
- The bottles from liquid non-dairy creamer are ideal for storing homemade salad dressing.
- Use a clip broken off a clothes hanger to hold food bags closed.
- Lots of uses for paper shopping bags.
- Those dome-lidded plastic cups from frozen coffee drinks can be used as no-spill paint cups for kids.
- Use leftover “disposable” party decorations to make a fort, a decorative banner, and even a simulated postal system!
- 51 ideas using old clothes and more!
- Use an old floor tile and an old glass lampshade to keep party food warm!
- The tin from Altoids mints is exactly the right size for a traveler’s supply of crayons.
- Did you tear the seat of your jeans? Make them into Shamelessly Lazy Toddler Jeans!
- 10 ways to reuse the plastic dome container from a bakery cake. One not mentioned in this article, which we’ve found useful at my church, is storing leftover pancakes.
- Educational activities for preschoolers using unwanted or outdated food and/or kitchen trash.
- 30+ ways to use eggshells.
- Make a cute hair bow out of old socks, in just a few minutes, with no sewing!
- Make a purse or tote bag out of old jeans or a denim skirt.
- Replace paper towels using old receiving blankets, an oatmeal box, and scrap yarn. No sewing!
- 16 uses for binder clips. Some of these are really innovative! Make sure to read the comments for several more ideas.
- Turn an unwanted T-shirt into pajama shorts.
- Lots of ways to use old toothbrushes.
- Make leg-warmers for a baby out of adult knee socks with worn-out feet.
- Turn an adult’s or larger child’s sweatshirt into a baby sleep-sack.
- Use the cotton from the top of a pill bottle in place of cotton balls.
- Lots of ideas for doing crafts with reused items.
- Lots of ways to reuse old jeans.
- Make a nifty building toy out of plain old cardboard.
- Use a large plastic food jar to hide your permanent markers from young children.
- Use the small bottles from water enhancer to pack sauces in lunches.
- Make an old lunchbox into a portable dollhouse, furnished with other reused items.
- Lots of ways to reuse cardboard boxes!
UPDATE: I’m linking this post to Your Green Resource and Small Footprint Friday and Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Repurposed Ideas Weekly and Green Living Thursday, where other writers are sharing some great enviro-ideas! I’m also linking to Fabulously Frugal Thursday, where other writers are sharing other ways to save money!