Give Old Items New Life: What to Do Before You Recycle

Jessie Lucier by Jessie Lucier | March 4th, 2010 | 2 Comments
topic: Green Living

woman holding reusable bag

You’ve reduced your energy and material consumption, you’ve been recycling now for years and your winter collection of compost is nearly ripe enough to be tilled into this year’s fledgling garden. Accordingly, as Earth Day’s 40th approaches, you’re feeling pretty okay about your good green behavior.

But, how often are you reusing items either in the conventional sense or giving an item a new purpose or a new life? Are you practicing reuse?

Reuse, as its name suggests, is using an item more than once. Conventionally, it’s the use of the same item for the same purpose multiple times, like the cloth and burlap bags that we use to transport groceries and other goods or the refillable glass milk bottles that are delivered to our doorstops.

Newlife reuse (or repurposing) is the transformation of the original or traditional use of an item into something different. For instance, today I am drinking homemade raspberry tea from a capped glass jar, which once housed sweet roasted red peppers. Rather than immediately recycle the glass, today it serves as a sustainable to-go cup.

Recycling, unlike newlife reuse, requires time, money and energy. In order for an item to be recycled, it must be broken down back into a raw material and then reconstructed into something new. And, while recycling is vital to the preservation of the natural environment, it’s a practice that should be used after all other newlife reuse tricks have been employed. To keep your footprint light, the three R’s should be followed in order: Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle.

Get reuse creative!

Glass jars can be repurposed into to-go cups, vases, or filled with homemade soup and given to a friend.

For kids crafts, turn plastic jugs into watering cans, cereal boxes into magazine holders, milk cartons into bird feeders or tin cans into herb pots.

With an eco-face lift, old or torn clothing can be upcycled into quilts, baby clothes, accessories or, if you’re a skilled seamstress, nearly anything. And remember: upcycling is not just considered sustainable, it’s also pretty eco-trendy.

Check out 50 ways to reuse your yoga mat, like dropping it off at a local animal rescue shelter to be used as a sleeping pad for a sick or injured animal, or use it to line your kitchen shelves.


As you’re sorting your plastics from your papers, take a moment to consider if these items really are at the end of their current life-cycle. Are they truly ready to be recycled into something new or can the old baby bottles be used as paint bottles and storage containers for the kids’ paint brushes? Today, find a new use for one item that normally would have headed toward a landfill or the local recycling plant.

This Month (or Spring):

Practice reuse in your garden. Rather than recycle the paper bags that you (gulp) “accidentally” acquired somewhere, repurpose them. Paper bags can be used to line your garden and then covered with soil or mulch. They help to keep weeds at bay and will decompose naturally.

This Year:

Find new uses for all sorts of items around the house that you’d generally discard or recycle. Also, support local artisans and companies that repurpose goods for new sale or use recycled materials in their business practices. Many goods created through reuse and recycled materials not only live lighter on the planet, but also stimulate sustainable economic growth in low-income and marginalized areas.

Keep up your good green work!


  1. Hello,

    My name is Kim Moshier and I am the president of the Environmental Club at the College of Saint Rose in Albany NY. I was wondering if your organization had any brochures that I would be able to give out to students to show them what the organization is, the different type of work that you do and how it is helping with the green initiative. If there is any information that can be given it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you very much,
    Kim Moshier

    kim moshier | July 22nd, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for your interest in Gaiam! We don’t have the type of brochure you describe, but you can learn about our commitment to the environment here:

    Kind regards,

    Valerie, Gaiam Content and Social Media Coordinator

    Valerie Gleaton | August 30th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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