Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Repurposing Milled Lumber, Tractor Implements, Fire-Damaged Trees and More


On our homestead, we repurpose whenever we can. “Repurpose” is utilizing something for a use other than what it was originally intended. After something can no longer be used for its original purpose, the user envisions putting it to another use where its function can be renewed in a different form. Our homestead is far from hardware stores, so we are especially attentive to possibilities of repurposing.

Small or Large Items

We repurpose coffee cans to hold nuts, bolts, nails, screws and such. We have also found that dog biscuit plastic containers can be reused for the same items that coffee cans are repurposed for. The clear plastic ones are especially valuable to reuse because when the label is removed I can see what is stored inside. From cans to tractor implements that are broken and not repairable, we repurpose whenever possible.

Broken Tractor Rear Blade

One example was what to do with a broken rear blade for our tractor. It had broken at a critical point and I had it welded back together. Regretfully, the second weld broke at the same place and that was the last that the implement would see any service. I disassembled the blade and found a use for most of the parts. The blade is used as an anchor to hold down the end of the tarp that covers our tractor. Another piece was used as a stanchion to hold firewood at the end of our woodpile.

New Portable Firewood Holder

The remaining pieces were used to fashion a portable firewood holder (see photo). In the winter when the wind blows and the snow accumulates and gets deep, getting to the woodshed can be difficult. Now we can locate the repurposed firewood holder close to the back door. That way we have a reserve stash of firewood close to the door where it is more accessible.

Wildfire Damage

I have written in the past that we had a major wildfire two years ago. (Spring Creek wildfire, the sixth largest in Colorado history). The heat was so intense, many trees were incinerated; however, some aspen trees, being mostly water, were spared albeit the bark was burned. The wood under the bark was heat dried and can still be used as excellent firewood if you don’t mind the mess.

 Burned Aspen Trees Still Have Value

The bark is burned and has an alligator-back appearance, but we found the underlying wood makes excellent firewood. (See photo) That is repurposing something that appears to be totally worthless due to wildfire damage into something that is still useful. Most people avoid this wood as it is dirty to handle but we wear gloves and use pulp hooks in handling to avoid the mess. It is thoroughly dried out and cuts and splits easily. It provides excellent heat and does not burn faster than undamaged trees. It has also had most insect activity removed by the intense heat.

Lightning Damaged Tree To Doors

In another instance we repurposed a tree that had been struck by lightning just outside our back door. A very large chunk of the tree was blasted out but the tree was approximately 22 inches in diameter so some lumber was a good possibility. I used our portable wood mill to mill lumber from the tree. I then used the lumber to make two interior doors to replace existing doors with a better quality door. After milling out the lumber to 1-inch thickness and squaring up all edges, I used a biscuit joiner to line up the pieces and then glued them together.

After I cleaned up the glue lines, I then cut the doors to size. I applied two coats of oil and wax finish when the doors were dry. I attached the bathroom door to the door jamb with self closing hinges and added a door handle. The pantry door was mounted with door hinges and a closing spring. We now had two interior doors that matched and were attractive.

Repurposed Glass Trinket

I had an oval beveled glass ornament with an etched hummingbird that we picked up from a craft show long ago. It was repurposed and mounted in the bathroom door so we would know when someone else was using the bathroom. (See photo)

Woodstove Fence to Gate

Another repurpose project was making a gate to keep the dogs from trying to climb the spiral stairs that go to the sleeping loft. German Shepherd dogs look at those stairs as a challenge. Some years ago we ordered a fence to go around our wood stove to keep the dogs from accidentally getting bumped into a hot stove. We ended up with two sections of fence that were unneeded. To keep the dogs from using the spiral stairs we repurposed one of those unused panels of fence. (See photo.) It serves as a gate that keeps the dogs downstairs to avoid the dangers of spiral staircases.

Sliding Glass Door To Functional Window

The contractor who built our cabin shell put a sliding glass door in the loft wall where there was only a one foot ledge to step out on. We took the sliding glass door out, framed in the wall and put a conventional window in its place. Subsequently, I used the glass from the sliding door to put a window in our breakfast room (see photo). Our A-frame cabin doesn’t have many windows for light and this new window was very beneficial to allow much more light in.

Giving New Life to Old Trash

Repurposing items that have lost their initial function or would otherwise be thrown away is a very useful tool for homesteaders. We do it often and the practice has benefited us immensely. Before tossing something into the trash or dumpster, it may be worthwhile to consider if it can be repurposed.

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site at Bruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Evaluating the Best Options for Energy-Efficient Cooking

While cooking is not among the top five of your home's 'energy-hungry routines,' if it's something you do every day then there are many small steps, and a few big ones you can take to decrease its impact on your energy use. Your method of cooking is the root of how much energy you use, so to help you cook wisely, here is a rundown of some of the best options for sautéing sustainably:

Cook with Electricity

Photo by Tonya Olson

Whenever you read about options for energy efficient cooking, the question of gas versus electricity always comes up. The difference in energy use is actually pretty negligible, especially now that induction cooking is bringing electricity up to par with the speed of gas. This shift really does put electricity in front in the "green" stakes for the following reasons:

  • Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and while most electricity comes from coal-burning power plants, you can source sustainable electricity via solar panels.
  • Gas introduces air pollution in the form of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide into your home.
  • Cooking with gas produces a lot of ambient heat, often requiring the use of air conditioners, a huge energy user.

The best option for cooking with electricity is definitely induction, which is 84-percent efficient, compared to the 40-percent efficiency of gas. A ceramic glass cooktop, which uses halogen elements as a heat source, is a close second as both options deliver heat almost instantaneously, cutting back on wasted energy.

Choose Convection over Conventional

Convection ovens are more energy efficient than conventional ovens because the heated air is continuously circulated, so you can reduce cooking temperatures and times. It's estimated that a convection oven uses about 20 percent less energy than its conventional counterparts. Throw in a self-cleaning model, which has significantly more insulation, and you have a pretty efficient cooking machine—just don't use the self-cleaning feature too often.

Smaller Can Be Better

Using microwaves and toaster ovens, which are basically miniature regular ovens, can reduce energy use by as much as 80 percent. These are great options for reheating and cooking small portions. While microwaves and toaster ovens do use a lot of energy when working, because they slice cooking times to smithereens they are definitely the energy-efficient option when you can opt for one over firing up the oven. Slow cooking with crockpots is a great way to cook energy-efficiently. Once the crockpot is brought to temperature, its insulation can keep it hot for up to 6 hours while drawing only minimal additional energy. On the other end of the spectrum, pressure cookers cook faster courtesy of steam pressure and a sealed pot, meaning you can cook your beans in less than half the time you would in a standard pot.

Full Steam Ahead

Energy Efficient Cooking

Whether electric powered or stove top, a two- or three-tier steamer is a highly efficient, incredibly healthy method of cooking, as you are cooking two or three dishes for the "price" of one and eliminating the need for oils and fats in the cooking process while retaining all the nutrients.

Once you have your eco-friendly cooking equipment, make sure you get the most out of it by following these five guidelines, sourced from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy:

  • Match the cooking method to the meal: use a toaster oven for one slice of pizza and the whole oven for the whole pizza.
  • Match the pan size to the element; a small pan on a big burner will waste energy.
  • Buy flat-bottomed, good quality cookware. Warped pan bottoms loose energy because they do not have good contact with the element.
  • Choose high-conductivity materials, such as copper-bottom pans on the stove and glass or ceramic in the oven, for faster cooking times.
  • Reduce cooking times by defrosting food in the fridge (which has the bonus of helping your fridge use less energy), putting dishes in the oven while it's preheating, and turning the oven off a
  • few minutes before the time is up.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about green-home technologies for Home Depot. Jennifer provides tips to homeowners on how they can cut back on energy usage for large appliances, including gas and induction ranges.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

How to Build a Low-Cost DIY Yurt from Sticks, String and Mud

Little Mud Hut Cob Building 

In 2007, I visited Bill Coperthwaite at his home in northern Maine and fell in love with the only round house I've ever been in that really works. The beauty of it grew directly from the circle itself; Bill didn't try to make it fit a squared-off floorplan: no right angles, and the big spaces (the main living space is about 30 feet in diameter) were simply divided in half or in thirds. People in one portion had privacy but could reach any other part of the building easily via a generous circular "room" that was open all the way around the perimeter.

Bill's designs would make a wonderful book (in addition to his classic, A Handmade Life), but I went home wondering how I could combine his ideas with my own favorite material: mud.


Creating a Structure from Basket-Woven Willow

My first attempt was a hybrid stud frame building with wattle and daub infill. It worked! The mud provided all the necessary stiffening without additional lumber, and even on the wettest, coldest Pacific Northwest winter day, it's comfortable and dry inside. The next year, I invited Bill out to lead a workshop. About 20 of us (many with no prior carpentry experience) built a beautiful 20-foot diameter, two-tier yurt with a living roof on the first tier, and shingles on the cupola. The bays in the framing of the bottom walls were filled with local willow woven by master basket-maker Margaret Mathewson, and backed with an earthen plaster.

Basket Woven Willow Yurt Frame 

Folks were delighted to learn the sophisticated carpentry required to cut all the compound angles with hand saws. Indeed, the framing was tighter than I've seen on many professional stick-built houses, Still, however, I dreamed of a design so simple that anyone could make it with minimal skills, no power tools, and no nearby lumber mill.Build A Mud Hut

I went to the woods and cut an armful of hazel withies about thumb thick. These I lashed with baling twine into a rough, circular lattice, staked to the ground and contained at the top by a tension band made of bamboo and also bound with baling twine. The roof was reciprocal: all the rafters woven into a self-supporting cone, each stick supported by the previous stick, and supporting the next one.

When I scaled up the design to 14-foot diameter, the same Margaret who had hosted Bill and the workshop let me thin out her grove of black basketry bamboo for the wall lattice. For the rafters, my neighbor let me cull some of the young Douglas fir saplings that had been shaded out in his forest.

When the lattice was up, we wove split-bamboo into it.

Adding a Natural Roof and Building Mud Walls

Little Cob Hut In Forest

A bigger reciprocal roof was more challenging, but beautiful and functional (thanks to Tony Wrench for inspiration — his lovely cob and cordwood round house is another variation on the yurt). The ceiling was canvas drop cloth, and the roof membrane was a piece of heavy-duty vinyl billboard tarp, a waste product that it tough, waterproof, and flexible — perfect!

And when it was time to mud the walls, we invited friends and had a party. Windows (and the door) were easy to cut out of the lattice, and followed that pattern of diamond shapes. The final interior finish was a lime plaster.

Photo by Pixabay/stigmama

Sharing Natural Building Techniques

I took the design down to Aprovecho Institute, in Cottage Grove, Oregon, to offer a week-long workshop as part of their 7-week Natural Building Intensive. In 4-1/2 days, 16 of us gathered and prepped all the materials, assembled the frame, raised the roof, and applied the first layer of mud. (The foundation/base had been completed beforehand.) In following years, we've slowed the pace to spend more time experimenting and addressing important design details around doors, windows, and the roof system. Several students have gone on to build their own yurts, and solved their own problems in new ways, with new materials as they find them. That's appropriate technology!

Designed for the rainy Pacific Northwest, the generous overhanging eave protects the walls and keeps them from growing moss. The thick, insulative earthen walls keep even unheated interiors dry and comfortable. The only time I get to work on this is for a week in the summer, and every summer we have to start a new one! So finish photos haven't yet been taken. So when you finish yours, send photos! And if you know of someone else building an innovative, low-tech yurt, please let us know so we can gather more material for our yurt-book project!

Here's a free booklet with more details.

Natural Building Community Workshop 


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Does Your Home Have Dangerous Levels of Radon Gas?

radon illustration

We tend to think that naturally occurring substances are either good for us or at least not harmful. Sometimes neither of these viewpoints is correct. Radon gas may be one of the most extreme example of “natural” that’s quite capable of killing you.

What Is Radon?

Radon is a radioactive gas that forms when the Earth's crust traps gas from the atmosphere. According to government analysis, radon can be found in every home to some extent. What matters is how much radon is there if it’s found in your house. Some geographical regions have radon-laden soil and rocks, and this can lead to high enough indoor concentrations to cause avoidable lung cancers, while other areas don’t have harmful levels at all. Testing is the only way to know for sure if radon levels in your home are high enough to warrant remedial action.  Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, radioactive radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall. Anything over 200 Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3) is considered dangerous, and levels can be reduced to less than 100 Bq/m3 with the right ventilation equipment. Even if your neighbour’s home has been tested and found safe without having a radon reduction system in place, that doesn’t mean that your home is safe, too. Indoor radon concentrations can be affected by many things and can vary tremendously from one house to the next.

You can have your home professionally tested for radon or you can buy your own radon test equipment and monitor levels yourself. Expect to pay $200 to $300 for decent radon kit, and use it repeatedly over time to get an accurate sense of what’s going on. Long-term testing for radon is more helpful than short-term readings which may not be representative of reality. Google “radon test kit” and you’ll find many options.  Also, since radon comes from naturally occurring soil and rocks, groundwater tests exist to identify harmful levels of radon present in well water.

Getting Rid of Radon

There’s an entire industry devoted to bringing household radon gas concentrations down to safe levels if testing shows a danger, and standard practice involves two main things. First, a powerful fan is installed to draw air from the soil underneath the home (not the basement, but the actual soil underneath the floor slab and from behind behind walls. ) This radon-laden air is safely ejected outside, either a roof level or ground level depending on where you live.

And second, all cracks, gaps and joints in and around the basement or concrete floor slab must be sealed. Without this sealing step, radon is still free to seep into your house because most of the suction of the radon fan is simply wasted drawing basement air outdoors, not sub-surface air from the soil. Not only is this less than ideal from a radon standpoint, but it massively increases heating bills as your radon fan simply shoots heated basement air outdoors. This is why basement crack sealing is vital for radon remediation. The problem is that most basement crack kits don’t work well enough because of one common problem.

You should get your home checked and confirmed by a radon specialist if you believe you have high radon levels. They will test the basement and other areas of the house to determine where the leaks are coming from and why they are occurring. If you have any sort of mitigation system in place, it makes it easier to find the source of the leak. Ultimately, reliable crack repair is an essential part of getting radon under control, but the usual sort of crack filling is not considered adequate.

radon mitigation

Radon mitigation 

Crack Repair for Radon

Standard concrete crack repair technology involves injection of epoxy or polyurethane into the crack, and while this seals radon-promoting gaps at first, basements often shift and move slightly over time, re-opening the gaps as seasonal expansion and contraction of concrete takes its toll. That’s why an additional sealing layer over top of cracks makes so much sense. Carbon fiber application over sealed cracks in concrete virtually guarantees a permanent radon seal because it prevents structural movement, and the best and most widely available consumer-level carbon fiber system I’ve used so far is the DRICORE PRO concrete repair.

Visit to watch a video tutorial I made to show a carbon fiber crack repair in action. I would never repair a basement crack by injection only because there’s a very good chance the crack will open again in time.Radon gas is one of those significant but avoidable health hazards in life, and while it may or may not be a problem where you live, testing will let you know. Proper actions can make radon a non-issue no matter where you live.

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. “Canada’s handiest man,” Steve and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Sheltered: Underground and Off-the-Grid Farm (Full-Length Documentary)


Man Interviewing For Documentary

Sheltered: Underground and Off the Grid is a full-length documentary that chronicles the building of the largest underground and off-the-grid farm on the planet. The rumors are true, I turned the job down four times and on the fifth request from the homeowner, I chose to build the project. The owner told me that if I took the project, it would change my life. It did.

Preparing to Film a Green Building Documentary

On the day that I chose to be the project leader on the Earth Shelter Project Michigan, I got an idea in my head to film the project. I immediately went to Best Buy and asked them how much credit I had on my Best Buy Card and they said $2,000. I spent $1,989 that day on video equipment, including a Sony HD video camera, a large sturdy tri-pod, extra batteries, a bag to hold everything and the extended warranty. My plan was to film every single day of the project without ever knowing that I would be on that project for just under three years.

After the project started, I set up the camera every day. Sometimes to film exact sequences and scenes and other times to just let the camera run for a few hours to capture what we were doing. This project started in 2009, which was still a bit before many other people were uploading videos online for viewing.

That is what I did. I chose Vimeo as the host site for my weekly to bi-weekly videos and had great viewership from all over the world. Those videos are still available on Vimeo.

Putting the Earth Sheltered Documentary Together

As I filmed the process of building the Earth Shelter Project Michigan, and made a weekly video of what I filmed, I started to think about making a documentary. Viewers of the online videos would tell me about being way ahead of the curve in building and that they had never seen anything like what we were building. I would read the comments each week to the crew and it seemed to be a motivator for them as I lead them through the most extreme weather conditions.

It was the ultimate honor for me that my video mentor, Ric Mixter, signed on to create the documentary. Ric has made many documentaries for major television networks and is a huge advocate for maritime history of the Great Lakes. Ric is known around the world for his video and documentary work. Ric had the daunting task of taking the almost three years of video that I shot (with a decent camera and no real training) and assembling it into a documentary that has toured the world with the U.S. Green Building Council’s traveling film festival. We sold countless copies of this documentary to people all over the country and have even had a version of it air on PBS!

Free to View for the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Readers

The other day, I was thinking about Mother Earth News and how wonderful of an opportunity it is for the publication to let me write about my adventures in sustainable building. That is when I had the thought to offer this documentary through Mother Earth News simply to let people watch this feat that many have called amazing.

I dedicate this documentary to anyone who wonders what is over the next hill, those people, like me, who thrive on a challenge. When you watch this documentary, I promise you that you will say wow at least once (if not more often). Remember while you are watching this documentary that it was filmed on one camera (except interviews and a few other scenes) back in 2009 to 2012 and we didn’t have the technology that we have today.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Find Waste-Free Alternatives for Regular Household Items and Enjoy Life More


Newspaper comics and pictures make great gift wrap.

As I reflect on the past year, I remember how I felt last year in December. The number 2020 simply sounded like a year of promise and opportunity. I was finishing up writing my second book. I was staying with my son Jordan, in Ottawa, for a couple of months. The sun wasn’t shining enough to power my tiny solar set-up at home to operate my laptop, so I decided to stay with Jordan from mid-December to March. As my stay was coming to an end, I had the first proofs of my book printed. I was excited about what lay ahead.

My son informed me that there were big problems in China. There was word on the Internet that a serious virus was spreading. Parts of the country were starting to close up shop.  Most people were without jobs. Those dying, were dying alone. It was absolutely horrible! But the air was cleaner.

Late February, I moved back to my cabin in the woods. The sun was shining more consistently, and my book was nearing publication. I was ready to share my book with the world. The world meanwhile, was shutting down. My only other income at that time was my greeting card line. The majority of my customers were gift shop owners, and they were among the first to close their doors during the first red alert.

The world changed quickly. It gave us time to stop, take a step back, re-examine things; scrutinize our lifestyles; assess our situations; perhaps, redefine our priorities.

For some of us, this challenge confirmed our conclusion: Living a simple back-to-the-land lifestyle was a good way to live out one’s life.

When I was in Ottawa, I witnessed an atrocity every garbage day. As well as garbage bins, blue recycling boxes lined the streets. People, believing they were practicing responsible stewardship by recycling, filled their boxes to overflowing, each week.

The promotional jingle for recycling is: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Reducing our consumption should be our focus. We should not be introducing so much plastic and waste packaging into our households, our stores, or our countries, in the first place. The recycling program is a distraction, a scam. It creates jobs — and a lot of pollution.

To consume everything in our path, without concern for anything or anyone else, is to act as a virus does. We are killing our host and many don’t care. Our politicians certainly don’t. We must re-think our actions and admit the existence of obvious consequences that come with such behaviour.

What Can We Do to Limit Waste?

Change starts with ourselves and in changing, we may influence others to follow suit. Reducing the amount of consuming we do takes serious commitment and self-discipline. I’ve spent the last 20 years living in a cabin in the woods without electricity but still have a long way to go before considering my lifestyle sustainable and completely eco-friendly.

We tend to do things the way we were taught, and purchase the products everyone uses, but it’s not right and I’m finally making some big changes. Some will take full effect on January 1 (I’m not promising to give up coffee 100%, just yet); some have already become part of my lifestyle.

Say Goodbye to Gift Wrap

I’ve been using interesting newspaper pages, clippings and comics as gift wrap, for years. The newspapers always have appropriate photographs and artwork for the season, and the comics provide chuckles in a wide palette of fun, pastel artwork.

Drawing googly eyes on a photo of your most hated politician for comedy gift wrap brings joy to the giver. Trump that, with the crossword puzzle section for an educational gift wrap that keeps on giving. Retailers often offer out-of-date newspapers for free. My resolution is to avoid tape completely with interesting folding techniques and a bit of reused bio-degradable string.

Use Baking Soda as Toothpaste

I’m reducing my waste of toothpaste tubes by using cardboard boxed baking soda instead. My dentist hygienist highly approved (she does the same) and suggested limiting the rinsing afterwards at night. She said the baking soda would continue to eliminate bacteria while sitting in my mouth. Though gross at first, you get used to it.

Natural Breath Fresheners

Chewing fenugreek seeds works as a breath freshener and will drastically reduce my gum purchases.

Natural Household Cleansers

I mix vinegar and water for cleaning most surfaces, including windows. I use newspapers or rags instead of paper towels, and compost my cotton rags. I use vinegar and baking soda to clean most stubborn messes. Borax and lemons are also great natural cleaners. I will not buy any more household cleaning products. Ever.

Natural ingredients promote health in body and home.

Natural Moisturizers

I’ve been using aloe vera, and coconut oil as moisturizer on my skin and hair for years. Aloe helps heal burns and abrasions, is good as a healing aftershave, and helps thicken and moisturize hair. Aloe is incredibly inexpensive as the plant is easy to grow, and multiplies quickly. I will no longer buy cream-rinse or moisturizers other than coconut oil.

Herbal Tea

The beverage industry is one that contributes greatly to the over-consumption of packaging. I have decided to drink only herbal tea, which luckily, I love, hot or cold. There is no garbage created in drinking tea, as the thin cardboard boxes and packet wraps are burned in my cookstove.

I enjoy such flavours as black cherry, peach and licorice. I hope to grow most of my own tea in the future. I presently grow chocolate mint and lemon thyme. A pot of tea acts as a room freshener as it steeps on the top of my cookstove. Herbal teas have no calories, and many varieties have specific health benefits and help boost your immune system.

Foraged Greens

Since spring, I’ve picked dandelions and trimmed day lily leaves and flower buds; adding them to stir fries, omelets and rice dishes. I hope to do even more foraging, for salads, in 2021.

My New Year’s resolution is to carefully scrutinize every purchase I’m making, in an effort to reduce my consumption and waste.

I look forward to the New Year. Whatever it holds. I live one day at a time. I’m learning what it means to live a simple life. I am grateful for my cabin in the woods, general good health, and the opportunity to spend my time working on developing a sustainable homestead, which in time, will provide the necessities of life for me, and future generations. My second book, You Are Never Alone: The Power of White Magic, is available on Amazon. Marketing it is a challenge in 2020.I pray for guidance from He who directs my path. I will spend each day learning and sharing what I’ve learned. Improving myself and my lifestyle.

Thank you, MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years of helping us share our knowledge, as brothers and sisters; veterans and newcomers; people looking for wiser ways to live in harmony with the Earth. I look forward to another year of learning and sharing.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Let's Make Secondhand Giving the New Norm

Secondhand Giving Cover

Did you know that American’s spend over $1 trillion dollars on holiday gifts every year?  According to the World Economic Forum, over $150 billion of that spending will be spent at large online retail stores.

And here’s the thing – while some of those gifts will be exactly what the recipient wants and needs, many of them will languish in a closet or be “re-gifted” or even worse – thrown out. Even if that gift was exactly what the recipient wanted or needed, there is a pretty good chance someone else had that item in fairly good condition and wasn’t using it anymore.

Instead of continually demanding NEW items from huge retailers, why not shift our focus for the holidays to reducing, reusing, and re-purposing? In other words, let’s make secondhand gift giving the new norm!

And before you ask – I also LOVE homemade and handmade gifts from small local artisans and craftspeople. Keep that on your gift-giving list, too!

Secondhand Gifts Save you Money

Let us start with the most obvious reason to buy secondhand gifts – saving money. The same article cited above from the World Economic Forum found that people are willing to go into debt to find the perfect gift for someone. Parents spend more than they can afford on their children, wanting them to have the perfect Christmas. Individuals who are under-employed and can barely make ends meet feel pressure to choose between gifts and groceries. Rampant consumerism reigns and most people are not better off.

This doesn’t have to be the case. There are so many options for giving that do not include spending more money than is reasonable for you to afford. Homemade gifts, gifts of time, and – yes – secondhand gifts all fit in that category.

This Christmas I spent less than $20 on gifts for my parents – but the gifts themselves were “like new” items from well-known brands that would have cost about $200 if purchased new. It took more of my time to find the perfect second-hand gift, for sure, but that is part of the gift. We combined those items with homemade ornaments from the kids and homemade beeswax lip balm for a package that is decidedly personal and cost less than $25.

Secondhand Gifts Require Fewer Resources

From a sustainability standpoint the production of new STUFF (whether it be electronics, clothes, or items for the household) has a negative impact on the environment. The production of those goods uses natural resources, materials, and fossil fuels that could be saved if we kept an item in circulation instead of demanding a new one.

Have you heard the statistic that it takes 1,800 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans?  And ye, there are thousands of jeans at your local thrift store or online that have already been made and worn (maybe) and are in perfectly good if not new shape. Why use another 1,800 gallons of water if you can re-use a pair that was already made?  This same example can be extended to millions of other products – the paper needed to make new books vs. shopping at a used bookstore; the metal fabricated and the factory time used to make a new video game when perfectly good used ones line the shelve at every gaming store. I get that there are times you want to buy something new (I tend to prefer new computers with service warantees because I use mine all day), but most of the came new is not necessary. 

Secondhand Gifts Decreases Waste

Keeping items in circulation rather than demanding new ones saves precious resources and lessens your negative impact on the environment, but buying secondhand can also be part of an effective Zero Waste strategy. If we stick with the example of clothing, the EPA estimates that 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018. If we could keep just half of those items in circulation rather than throwing them away, we would decrease the total amount of trash by 4 or 5% a year.

Decreasing waste is a complicated and complex science, but every time we buy a used item instead of a new one we are increasing demand for recycled items and decreasing demand for new items. Why shouldn’t gift-buying be part of that equation?

If the recipient of your gift cares about the environment, you can include a note in your gift about how their gift helped reduce waste!

Buying Secondhand Gifts Supports Small, Local, and Independent Sellers (More Often)

The re-use industry in the US has been booming lately – there are 50 million active users of Poshmark, an online forum for buying and selling used clothing, home goods, and toys. Likewise, sites like Facebook Marketplace have begun to outpace Craigslist as more and more people look to buy goods from each other instead of purchasing new. When you buy items on these platforms, you may see a portion of your payment go to a large umbrella company, but a significant portion also goes to an individual who is re-selling that item. You might be helping that person to pay off their student loans, build up an emergency account, or fill in the gap when they are underemployed – or you may be helping them to afford gifts for their family and friends!

Secondhand stores are also doing strong business in many communities, and many of those stores benefit good causes. In my town alone we have one re-use store that benefits Habitat for Humanity, one that focuses on job creation for at-risk youth (a local nonprofit), and multiple church and hospital thrift shops. We also have multiple locally-owned secondhand stores in my community. These shops are small businesses owned by our neighbors and friends. When we shop at these locally-owned or nonprofit stores, we are making a financial investment in our community. Our funds circulate within our community to help keep us vibrant and take care of each other.

Granted, not all second-hand stores are owned by local neighbors, but buying high quality second-hand is still a better choice than buying from a large discount store that doesn’t treat employees well and likely sells cheaper quality items that you’ll need to replace sooner (see my previous point about waste).

Child with lawnmower

Because New-to-You is Just as Good as New (Especially for Kids!)

Ok, so here’s the bottom line. People often get rid of things before they have lived a full life of use. If you are already a thrift shopper you know what I mean. For many different reasons, people donate or sell items that look just like new or have a ton of life left. Maybe they gained or lost weight, a child grew out of a toy, or they realized they just don’t use that ice cream maker anymore. But that old saying, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is true. In fact, I’m in the market for an ice cream maker right now and I’d be CRAZY to buy a new one with the number available from resellers!

This is especially true when it comes to kids. All that matters is that the toy works and it is NEW TO THEM. This year, we traded a building set for a dollhouse and – voila – each kid had an awesome new toy. And we’ll be putting that dollhouse under the tree. Because it is beautiful, vintage, and our daughter will love it. Who cares if it has likely been through 3 families – that’s the joy of it. We’ll be making a table for her to display it in her room, and various family members have purchased little treats to furnish it. The thought put into the gift, and how much the recipient will love it, is the whole point.

Will you join us in adding secondhand gift giving to your routine?  Do you already do it?  We’d love to hear about some of your favorite secondhand gifts!  Let’s inspire each other to waste less, spend less, and focus more on thoughtful gifts that keep on giving.

Carrie Williams Howe is a blogger aThe Happy Hive Homestead and Founder of Homestead How-To.  She works at a nonprofit by day, and is a parent and aspiring homesteader on nights and weekends. She lives in Williston, Vt., with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about lifelong learning. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

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