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Originally published Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Money tip: Giving your trash a purpose

For some, the line between trash and treasure is fine: They are on America's bandwagon for re-purposing or "upcycling."

Chicago Tribune

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Plastic soda bottles, old carpet, out-of-date phone books and lint from the clothes dryer are typical items you might find in any American's trash or recycling bin.

For some, however, the line between trash and treasure is fine. They are on America's bandwagon for re-purposing or "upcycling."

In the environmentalist mantra, "reduce, reuse, recycle," the second commandment often gets short shrift and is probably least explored by average consumers, said Jeff Yeager, author of the new e-book "Don't Throw That Away!"

"If anything, we're living in an ever-increasingly disposable society," Yeager said.

Sometimes that's because manufacturers plan their products to become obsolete.

Other times you can't find someone to repair an item or you might find it more cost-effective to replace a broken or worn item rather than fix it.

Much of our throwaway culture is just force of habit, and we'd be better off financially and environmentally if we reused some of the stuff that passes through our homes, Yeager said.

Make no mistake: Re-purposing alone won't make you rich. That's not the point.

"Something as simple as remembering that you can use a piece of tin foil more than once will perhaps instill in you an ethic of thrift, which could have big ramifications," Yeager said.

It's less the act and more the attitude. As Yeager says, "when you pinch the pennies, the dollars usually pinch themselves."

Erin Huffstetler, guide of the Frugal Living site on, said re-purposing is one of her favorite topics.

"Re-purposing is good for the environment and your wallet," she said. "It keeps things out of the landfill, and helps to keep your shopping list short."

The first step to re-purposing is what Yeager calls a "trash-can autopsy." Roll up your sleeves and literally go through a week's worth of trash and recycling.

There is a hierarchy of goals.

First, when you're mindful of what you throw away, perhaps you'll buy less in the first place. A recycling bin full of water bottles might give you pause when you realize you can drink tap water for nearly free.

Second, many things can be used for the same purpose more than once.

Third is creative re-purposing. Can you take something you would normally throw away and convert it into something useful?

While some ideas for re-purposing are wacky — crushed beer cans as aluminum siding? — others are practical or fun: a bacon-scented kitchen candle made by pouring leftover bacon grease into an empty tin can and inserting a cloth wick.

Here are ideas to reuse what you find in trash and recycling bins. The point isn't to necessarily use these ideas but to stop and think before throwing away something.

Plarn. Ideally, you would bring reusable bags to the supermarket or return plastic bags to be recycled. Creative repurposers make plarn — or plastic yarn — and use it to knit or crochet some good-looking items. Some use plarn to make a sturdy, reusable grocery sack. Ideas and instructions are easily found on the Internet. YouTube has more than 200 instructional videos.

Dryer sheets. Not only can you use dryer sheets more than once, you can then use them as wipes for the kitchen and bath. "Some of the chemicals in them are the same as used in various kitchen and bath cleaners," Yeager said. Try them on the business end of a Swiffer mop. They can also be used instead of mothballs in closets or in boxes of clothes. You can even use dryer sheets between books on shelves to keep them from becoming musty.

Weeds. Many people know you can use vinegar instead of pricey liquid weedkillers. But if you're boiling water for pasta, take the hot water out to the driveway or sidewalk and pour it on weeds growing in cracks. It will kill them. If you have weeds in gravel pathways, apply swept-up rock salt from the previous winter.

Food containers. "It seems we are packaging- and container-crazy," Yeager said. "The jar that pickles came in is obviously safe to put food in." (Pickle juice can also be used for weed control.) Coffee cans are a classic favorite for storage.

Cellphones. Instead of throwing out your 2006 cellphone, give it to an elderly relative as an emergency phone. As long as it's charged, the handset should dial 911 without a service plan.

Jugs. Fill a plastic milk jug or soft-drink bottle with water and place it in your toilet tank to displace water and cut water use. Most toilets flush fine with less water. Yeager figures a family of four could save about $90 a year on the water bill. Or, freeze a plastic bottle of water. A full freezer is more energy efficient and will stay colder longer if you lose power. You can use the frozen bottles as dripless ice cubes when you pack your ice chest for an outing.

Peels. Use lemon, lime and orange rinds to shine copper and brass. Or, heat citrus peels in the microwave to create a room deodorizer. Shine shoes with a banana peel. "You can even dye your hair with potato peels," Yeager said.

Foil. Reuse aluminum foil — unless the foil came in contact with raw meat — by flattening it out. Wad foil into a ball for cleaning the outdoor grill and stuck-on food from pots, pans and racks. You can place used foil in your clothes dryer, instead of dryer sheets, to reduce static cling.

Mesh bags. Plastic mesh bags, the kind onions and oranges come in, make great pot scrubbers, Huffstetler said. Ball up several by wrapping one inside another.

Baking soda. When you replace the baking soda in your fridge, use the old box to make household cleaners. Recipes are easy to find online, including at

Phone books. Duct-tape them together as a dinner table child booster seat or step aerobics platform. Or tape one shut and use it as a garden kneeling pad.

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