Urban Renewal

You’ve been wearing your "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” T-shirt for years, right? Freshen your perspective with these ideas.

by Jessica Walliser

Photo by Stephanie Staton

Sort your recycling based on the needs of the recycling center in your area to keep the process rolling along smoothly.

In today’s world of disposable convenience, it’s trendy to be “green,” but it sure isn’t easy. Almost everything comes in a disposable form, and at one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves grabbing prepackaged food on-the-go, forgetting to take our reusable mug to the coffee shop, and buying something we really didn’t need.

It’s tough to remember to have a eco-friendly attitude when some days you can barely remember where you put your car keys. But, take heart. Even if you aren’t perfectly eco-chic all the time (and, really, who is?), there are plenty of clever and honest ways to put Earth-friendly action into your life.

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Reduce “Waste”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces 4 pounds of trash every day. That adds up to more than 200 million tons of garbage every year. Yikes — that’s a lot of waste! What’s even harder to grasp is that the large majority of this waste actually isn’t waste at all. An average of 60 to 85 percent of each household’s waste is recyclable. For example, it’s estimated that upwards of 35 percent of our garbage consists of paper products that, in most cases, are easily recyclable, as are the 27 billion glass items we toss each year.

So how do we make it better without feeling utterly overwhelmed? By taking the following concepts to heart, growing some of your own food, and adopting a more eco-friendly routine, you can feel good about your efforts to boost your self-sustainability.

Reduce Consumption

The first step in eco-friendly living is to reduce your consumption. Don’t buy what you don’t need, and don’t replace items that can be repaired. Next time you’re at the grocery store, look at a package for more than what’s inside. Packaging materials account for an ever-increasing amount of waste, and over-packaging is more and more common as our food (and other product) sources move further and further from home.

Buying stuff with less packaging is one way to reduce your waste output. If you have a choice at the store, buy the broccoli that isn’t covered in plastic shrink wrap (growing your own is even better) and buy your dry goods in bulk. Pasta, beans, rice, cereals, flour, sugar, grains and many other products are available sans packaging at bulk-food stores. Take your own containers to fill, and pick up a few loaves of freshly baked bread wrapped in your own tea towels while you’re there. Don’t forget your cloth shopping bags!

When we make conscientious decisions about what we buy, and when we consider whether we truly do or do not need another “something” in our lives, we’re naturally reducing our waste stream. If you buy, buy smart.

Reuse: Make the Old New Again

Egg-carton seed-staring container

Photo by Stephanie Staton

Use egg cartons to start seeds.

Reuse and repurpose what otherwise might get tossed. Grandma probably taught you that old T-shirts make great dust cloths and that baby-food jars are perfect for storing buttons and paperclips. For her generation and many before, it was compulsory to reuse items. (It was considered an incredible waste of money to use something only once!) There were no paper towels, paper napkins or paper plates. It was wash rags, cloth napkins and real plates. Cut out the disposables. Reuse items to breathe new life into them. There are clever ways to do this without inconveniencing your family.

Jim Long, owner of Long Creek Herbs, entertains large groups of people for tours and herbal tastings. He doesn’t have the facilities to wash and store lots of cups, so he found a clever way to reuse the plastic ones. Jim buys only yellow cups. After the tours are over, he coats their exterior in non-drying glue and inverts them over little stakes placed throughout the garden.

“The yellow attracts the little black flea beetles that bother eggplants and the aphids that attack the tomato plants. They get trapped in the glue and die,” he says.

In his book The Green Gardener’s Guide (Cool Springs Press, 2008), author and television host Joe Lamp’l notes that construction debris accounts for a large amount of landfill waste. He says to reuse old building materials to build paths, walls, raised beds and cold frames. Lamp’l also has a great tip to reuse toilet-paper tubes: Use them to start seeds indoors.

“Just fill it with your favorite potting soil, place a seed or two inside, and plant it directly into the ground once the seedlings are ready for the great outdoors,” he says.

Many farmers and gardeners find one of the smartest (and simplest) things to reuse is water. Cool pasta-cooking water and reuse it to water outdoor plants. Collect water from the dehumidifier to wash the dog. Reuse your veggie-washing water for the houseplants.

For an even greater impact, reuse rainwater. One inch of rainfall on a 1,000-foot roof yields about 500 gallons of water—more than enough to water the average garden. There are many types of rain barrels available, ranging from fancy models to plain, old 55-gallon plastic drums. You should expect to pay $40 to $150 per barrel, depending on its composition and the accompanying extras.

There are even eco-friendly rain barrels made from recycled plastics or used oak wine barrels. Most models have built-in spigot connections at the bottom, and some have overflow outlets that allow you to connect several barrels. Positioning your barrel (or barrels) 1 foot or so above ground level improves water flow by utilizing gravity.

Budget-conscience folks can fashion their own rain barrel from food-grade storage drums—be sure they never contained chemicals or petroleum products. Whatever model you choose, secure the top to prevent access by children and pets, and empty and store it each winter.

Another great way to reuse is to purchase gently worn clothing, furniture, kids toys and other items instead of buying new. Hit some local garage sales, consignment shops and resale stores. Most of the stuff you’ll find there is in terrific shape, the prices are always good, and there’s never any packaging to throw away. Don’t forget to complete the cycle by taking your used items and reselling them at the same stores.

Online resellers are another option for eco-friendly shoppers, though shipping the items uses fuel energy and requires some packaging. Ebay and Craigslist are terrific sources for previously loved items as well as great places to unload what you no longer want. You can find, sell, trade and give away items through the websites—from strawberry plants to designer jeans to swing sets. You also might want to check out The FreeCycle Network, an online listing of all kinds of free, used items right in your hometown. Listing your own excess items on these websites keeps the cycle going strong.

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