7 Everyday Items You’re Tossing Out That You Might Not Realize You Can Reuse

updated Apr 24, 2021
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A modern rustic kitchen with an island and stainless steel trash can
Credit: Joe Lingeman

The earth’s resources may be vast, but they’re not infinite, so it’s important to be mindful of the ways we use them at home. “Energy and natural resources go into every product we buy, so if we can extend the life of the things we already have, we reduce our need to take more resources from the planet,” says Shannon Kenny of Mama Eco. “Whenever we repurpose or reuse an item, we maximize what we’ve already taken.”

Along with reducing the emission of fossil fuels, sustainability coach Anca Novacovici of Eco-Coach says repurposing items that would otherwise end up in the trash can help slow the effects of global warming — and might help your wallet in the process. “Waste in landfills produces greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change and can also lead to toxins leaching into the soil and waterways,” she explains. “When you repurpose and reuse, you avoid generating unnecessary waste and save money by not purchasing a new product.”

Whether you realize it or not, there are lots of everyday items that you might be tossing in the trash or recycling bin that could have a second life somewhere else in your home. From empty milk jugs to plastic blanket packages and more, here are seven unexpected things that sustainability experts say you can repurpose into something new.

Plastic Food and Drink Containers

Although plastic food and beverage packaging, including vegetable tubs, yogurt containers, milk jugs are composed of recyclable high-density polyethylene (HDPE), they still take a toll on the environment. According to the U.S Environmental Agency (EPA), about 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2018 alone, and over 10 thousand tons ended up in a landfill. 

Luckily, there are lots of ways you can convert certain food and drink containers into functional home keeping items. “Plastic tubs, like the ones that mushrooms come in, can be repurposed as drawer dividers to help keep your dresser organized, while small yogurt containers can become popsicle molds,” says Kris Bordessa of Attainable Sustainable. “Just fill with juice, insert a wooden stick, and freeze.”  

You can also repurpose an empty milk jug into a handy gardening tool. “Milk jugs make excellent watering cans because they’re easy to carry and you can fill them with water without the risk of spilling,” says garden expert Melinda Myers. “Or you can cut out one side and the bottom, but leave the handle intact, to create an easy-to-grip soil scoop.” 

Old Cotton T-shirts

The average American generates about 82 pounds of textile waste each year, which adds up to more than 11 million tons from the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, the EPA says the bulk of that waste is discarded clothing, including old cotton t-shirts, which can easily be recycled or repurposed.

To upcycle a worn-out DIY dryer sheets.  “Soak the squares in white vinegar with a teaspoon of lavender essential oil and toss one into each dryer load instead of non-recyclable commercial dryer sheets,” she says.

Packaging Bags

While some trash bags are composed of recyclable materials, when they are used to collect non-recyclable trash and discarded, the whole package heads to the nearest landfill. That’s why waste educator Lindsay Miles of Treading My Own Path recommends repurposing packaging bags, including bread bags and produce bags from the grocery store, into small trash can liners at home. “Pet food or cat litter bags are a great alternative if you need a larger size,” she explains. “It beats buying something brand new with the sole purpose of putting it in the trash can.”

If you buy a new blanket or bedding that comes in a plastic zipper pouch, Bordessa says you can convert it into a mini-greenhouse for starting seedlings. “Place seed containers inside to help retain moisture, and when seeds begin to sprout and get too tall, simply move them out and start a new batch,” she advises.

Credit: Cat Meschia/Kitchn

Soap Ends

If you thought soap ends — aka the nubby little pieces of soap bars that you can no longer grasp onto — were good for nothing, Kenny says you’d be mistaken. “You can gather all of your soap ends and put them into a mesh drawstring bag, or an actual soap saver bag, and voila: you’ve got a washcloth pre-loaded with soap you can use like you would a soap bar.”

No mesh drawstring bag on hand? No problem. Healthy home advocate Marla Esser Cloos of Green Home Coach says that mesh produce bags, like the ones that garlic comes in, will get the job done. “This way you can create a small soap scrubber with the little bits of soap,” she explains.

Glass Bottles and Jars

Of the more than 12 thousand tons of glass generated in 2018, the EPA says more than half that amount was landfilled. Whether with empty wine or liquor bottles or used candle jars, glass containers can be transformed into a variety of practical tools and organizers for different areas of your home. 

To rework an empty bottle of wine or liquor into something useful, Meyers recommends converting it into a watering device for your container plants. “Simply scoop out a hole in the potting soil, fill the bottle with water, and place it upside down in the hole,” she says. “This extra water will help extend the time between watering and add some color to your indoor or outdoor planter.”

If you aren’t interested in upcycling a glass bottle or jar into something yourself, Miles says that there’s a good chance someone could use it. “Save them up until you have a few and offer them on a free giveaway site, like Buy Nothing or The Freecycle Network,” she advises. “You’d be amazed at how many people want them for preserves, candles, gifts, succulents, and pantry storage.

Credit: Gabi Dunn
Caption 6: Got dishes? Without a dishwasher and very limited drying space, we spend a lot of time here. Atop the fridge the plants get enough light and create an arboretum feel, making it a pleasant place to do dishes and daydream of lush forests. Shoutout to our plastic free and compostable cleanin

Food Scraps

Newsflash: Food waste is adversely impacting the environment. The EPA estimates that in 2018, about 42.8 million tons of discarded food ended up in a landfill or combustion facility, where it can release methane gas as it breaks down and creates a greenhouse effect that warms the planet. 

Instead of throwing out bones, veggie scraps, and veggie skins, Kenny suggests dumping them all in a pot of water with salt and pepper, and boiling it for a few hours. “You’ll end up with a delicious broth that you can drink as is or use when making a soup,” she explains.

You can also compost certain food scraps, such as coffee grinds, eggshells, and fruit and veggie scraps, at home to create a nutrient-rich soil for your plants. Indoor compost bins are affordable and easy-to-come by, and usually small enough to store under your kitchen sink on a countertop. 

Gift and Packing Materials

If you’re tossing out perfectly good gift wrap every time you get a present, then you’re doing it wrong. Over 4.6 million pounds of gift wrapping paper is produced in the United States every year, and approximately half of it will end its life in a landfill. “Tissue paper, gift bags, ribbons, and wrapping from gifts received can all easily be reused to wrap future presents,” Cloos explains. Just be sure to unwrap your own gifts carefully to avoid rips.

The same goes for cushiony packaging materials, such as packing peanuts and bubble wrap, that are tricky to recycle but easy to reuse whenever you move or ship something fragile. “If you don’t have a need to hang onto these items, consider passing them on to someone else,” Bordessa says. “Styrofoam packing blocks and peanuts could be donated to a shipping business, while other random packaging could become art materials for a preschool.”