I love that Joni Mitchell’s song River has become a holiday anthem:

It’s coming on Christmas

They’re cutting down trees

They’re putting up reindeer

And singing songs of joy and peace


Right now, not only are we cutting down trees, we are all preparing to draw on other Earth resources as we give each other potentially mass quantities of gifts.  So it’s also a time for everyone to think about what they will be getting rid of to make way for the new items.  Please, please, don’t tell me that you are planning to throw things in the trash.  This is the primest (if that is a word) time in the world for reuse.  And, of course, it’s a great time to brush up on your regular recycling skills at the same time.

Maybe you were one of the people who were swayed by the recent anti-recycling rant by John Tierney in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/the-reign-of-recycling.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0).  If you really put confidence in that piece, leave a comment, and I will write a future post on why I disagree.  But me, I have more faith in The Story of Stuff (http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/).  That  movie, and the ones that have built on it, remind us that each item we have sitting in our homes represents a lot of embodied energy and resources, and also a history of upstream waste that was generated as that item was created and shipped and used.  If I put my no-longer-needed items into use by someone else, I can avoid having most of that energy, resources and waste being created again, at least for one item.  It just seems to make sense in an Earth-ecological-income balance sense, on a finite planet, where all of us are wanting more and more all the time.


Some reuse tips I have developed:

  • If you can find the space, keep a “Rummage Sale” box in your basement or garage, and put things in there as you decide you no longer need them. Stockpiling things like this has multiple benefits:
    • It recognizes the fact that you can’t donate each item as you decide it is unnecessary; this way you are less tempted to just throw up your hands and trash something, since moving it into the Rummage Sale box takes it out of the “prime real estate” of your everyday space.
    • When you do decide to donate to some person or organization, you already have things aggregated, and you don’t have to go searching all through the house. Instead, you can spend your time sorting out the collection, selecting those that are accepted by the recipient you have in mind.  Also, as you sort, if there is anything that you really can’t part with, you have a second chance to hold that back.
  • Once you have identified things for reuse, you can establish your own hierarchy of best places to donate them. Perhaps you can look around to see if there is someone in your community circles (neighborhood, friends, etc.) or family that might benefit from something you want to discard.  Maybe a reuse like-minded person has a young child, and would love to have that big plastic playhouse that would take up so much space in the trash?  My sister in law gave me lots of clothing when she and I each moved down a size—it was great having a whole new wardrobe,, just when I needed it most.
  • If there isn’t someone you can or want to personally hand things to, you can look for a charity or other outlet for donation. These range from the collections sponsored by houses of worship for local families needing help, up to well-known national organizations like Goodwill and Red Cross.  The trick is to find a place or places that best matches your own time and resources.  Your selected recipient has to pass the throwing up your hands in despair test—is it so inconvenient to get things to the place you select that you simply throw up your hands and trash it all?
  • Don’t pass problems on to someone else. This means:
    • Figure out what your identified recipient actually accepts—e.g., don’t give them books, if they don’t accept them. And even if they do accept books, don’t assume they accept textbooks (which almost nobody accepts).  Your recipient has certain “markets” as it were for each item donated—if they haven’t set up a market for something, it just becomes trash for them.  And they have to spend staff/volunteer time and possibly money getting rid of these unwanted items.  So, again, don’t give them something just because you think it is still a usable item.
    • On an extension of the above, don’t pass on something that is obviously trash. This will differ somewhat, since some organizations can use things that may seem like trash—e.g. ripped or stained clothing or other textiles—in some other way than the original use.  In the case of those textiles, lots of seemingly ratty textiles do end up in the rag market.  But other “trashy” things will be more obvious.
    • Another kind of problem you should never pass on is things that have been recalled or deemed too hazardous to use. This is especially important with toys—anything that is listed as unsafe on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website as unsafe should be trashed, not donated.  (http://www.cpsc.gov/)
  • Prep and deliver things appropriately. A good place to look for tips on getting things ready is http://www.goodwill.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/DonationDosandDonts.pdf.

You will note that the online primer referenced just above is trying to steer you away from the organizations that call and/or leave postcards that promise pick-ups right in your own driveway.  However, regardless of who gets the money raised from your discards, these types of places may be the best for you.  My biggest concern is always whether it is likely that the organization I am donating to will actually make sure the item is reused somehow.  I once ran a collection from the dorms of a local private school at the end of the school year.  The very local charity which had told us it wanted all the things we were planning to collect instead sent a small group of youths who cherry picked over the items, took only a few, and departed, leaving us with lots of other perfectly usable items.  We had to go back and find a larger organization for the rest of the items.


It’s also a good time of year to brush up on your recycling skills—check your town’s website to find out what they accept (I was amazed to find out my town accepts clean balled aluminum foil).  And wrapping paper is recyclable!  You might want to remove as much tape as possible, just to make it better for recycling.

There are items that aren’t collected curbside that it is crucial to recycle nonetheless.  In New Jersey, it has become illegal to send electronics to the landfill because of the heavy metals and other polluting materials that are used in those items.  You can look for a place to donate used computers, televisions, cell phones and the like.  Or, if they are only good for recycling, call your town to find out where to take them—every New Jersey town is required to have a plan, and counties also run collection events periodically.  Resolve to hold onto the items until you can pass them on environmentally, and not trash them.

During the holidays, on average, each American family generates 25% more waste, so you can also look for ways, independent of reuse of durable items, to reduce your family waste.  Can you serve your guests with reusable plates and silverware instead of paper?  Do you have extra food that the food bank might accept, or could you scale back what you make, so that there isn’t any food waste in the first place?

Can you avoid buying and using stick on holiday tags by cutting up old Christmas cards?  My mother used to use pinking shears to create a decorative edge, and a single-hole hole punch to make a place for the ribbon to go through.  I saw a kit advertised to make really fancy tags from old cards.

Finally, hopefully everyone finally got a composter for the back yard.  Use the instructions that came with the composter, and call your local Rutgers Cooperative Extension office for any troubleshooting.

Okay, so it’s not really finally, since I know you can get started thinking of many more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Tis the season to value our Earth resources!