Trash is a big, dirty problem. The average American tosses out nearly 2,000 pounds of garbage every year. The Zero-Waste Lifestyle (Ten Speed Press, 2012) is a guide to a healthier, happier and more sustainable life by way of creating less trash. Author Amy Korst used lessons from her yearlong experiment in zero-waste living to offer hundreds of simple ideas and low-impact tips. Eliminate the unnecessary from life and help preserve the planet’s future. In the excerpt that follows, learn how to recycle old clothing and revamp your laundry room to create a zero-waste bedroom.
This book can be purchased from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Zero-Waste Lifestyle.
Clothes are not what you usually think about when considering trash produced in your household, because clothes are not usually a weekly addition to the garbage can. There will come a time, however, when some article of clothing needs to be demoted from the closet. Before tossing that holey sock or stained sweatshirt, consider reusing the fabric for another household chore—perhaps cutting old clothing into rags for cleaning.
You might be wondering if clothing trash is really an important thing to worry about. The answer depends on the type of fabric the clothing is made from, whether it is synthetic or natural. Natural fabrics like cotton and linen are biodegradable, but lots of today’s fabric is made from petroleum-based polymers—this includes fabric like nylon and polyester. These fabrics pose the same problem as plastic, which is that they never truly go away. Luckily, used clothing is much easier to deal with than other plastics, such as an empty water bottle or an old guitar pick. After you are finished wearing an article of clothing, it’s not usually trash. Someone else could wear that old sweatshirt, or you can reuse it in any number of ways.
Once Clothing Wears Out
The question becomes, what to do with clothing that is old, unfashionable, too big or small for changes in your size, stained, or torn? Cloth is a great resource, because it can always be turned into something new. Your goal is to keep it out of the garbage can by reusing it in some way.
There are many options available for reusing old clothes. The simplest option is probably giving used clothes to a thrift store or a friend. Thrift stores will take pretty much any clothing item in reasonable condition off your hands, and this way you have saved the clothes from the trash. A little-known fact is that some Goodwill locations will even accept clothes that are too stained, torn, or otherwise worn to be resold. Donate these items to the Goodwill in a bag marked as rags, where they will be recycled by a rag dealer. You can also save clothes to sell in a yard sale. This works especially well for unusual clothing items like Halloween costumes, prom dresses, or children’s clothes.
You can also organize or participate in a clothing exchange with your closest friends. This simply involves rummaging through your closet for gently used clothing you are tired of. Pull out a handful of items and bring them to a get-together with your family and friends who also bring a number of clothing items to share. Trade your articles of clothing for new-to-you items brought by others. By the end of the exchange, you’ll go home with some free new outfits, and you can feel good about giving old clothing a new life.
Old clothes have a number of reuse applications around the house, too. If you have a set of old, stained clothes you’re embarrassed even to donate to the Goodwill, you could certainly turn these into cleaning rags. I keep rags such as these all over the house. A bunch reside in my cleaning bucket, and more live in my garage for messy spills. Old T-shirts and sweatshirts make especially good cleaning rags because they are soft and absorbent.
If you are handy with a sewing machine or know a friend who is, you can turn old pieces of clothing into new fabric. To a sewing whiz, there’s nothing quite like some new fabric to play with. I have used my old clothing for a number of sewing projects. My favorite to date is a T-shirt quilt. All my old souvenir T-shirts—from the one featuring cats as astronauts from a NASA gift shop to a blindingly lime green atrocity I wore when I worked as a lifeguard—are cut into quilt squares with the T-shirt graphic in the center. The blocks are sewn together in rows, then cotton fabric runs around the border. This is a great use for old T-shirts, because if you’re anything like me, some of these are hard to part with because of the memories they hold. Old rags can be used as stuffing, too, especially for something utilitarian like a pet bed.
Shoes are hard to recycle because—you guessed it—they are made from lots of different materials, including leather, rubber, and fabric. When picking out new shoes, follow the same guidelines you would when selecting new clothes. Buy whatever shoes you believe will last the longest, and wear your shoes until they can’t be worn anymore. Really get your money’s worth out of every pair.
You might even consider resoling your shoes. Cobblers and shoe repair shops still exist, and often repairing a pair of shoes is cheaper than buying a new pair. I have an old pair of Birkenstocks that I love, for example, but the cork foot bed is worn to practically nothing, A quick search shows me that I can resole my favorite sandals for about $65, which is cheaper than the $100 I’d pay for a new pair of shoes. When your shoes are ready to move on, you have two options: recycle or donate.
Depending on their condition (they must still be wearable), old shoes can be donated to a thrift store. Some nonprofit organizations also take shoe donations, but again, the shoes must be in decent condition. They shouldn’t have holes or be trash-worthy. If you’re interested in donating shoes to the less fortunate, check out Donate Your Old Shoes or Soles4Souls. If you have athletic shoes that are too old or worn for donation, check out Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program, which grinds old athletic shoes into a material called Nike Grind, used for athletic surfaces. Nike will take all athletic shoes, regardless of brand. Check out the Reuse-A-Shoe website for more information.
Athletic equipment is usually extremely durable—think racquetballs, baseball bats, inline skates, and basketballs. When you buy new equipment for sports or hobbies, take a look at the packaging it comes in and choose the best trash-free option. It is common for the exact same item to come packaged in very different materials. Tennis shoes are a great example. Some shoes come in a cardboard box with tissue paper wrapping, whereas others have a plastic form inserted into the shoe to hold its shape. The better option here is the shoe that comes without plastic. Additionally, always try to recycle as much packaging as possible—that cardboard box can be reused, and the tissue paper composted.
Because athletic equipment is so durable, you can often elect to purchase it secondhand. I find that athletic supplies are extremely common at both thrift stores and garage sales. If you purchase supplies secondhand, you are saving money, applying the “reuse” principle, and making a purchase without packaging. If you do buy brand-new equipment, look for it without packaging. Tennis rackets, for example, can be purchased loose or in packaging; the loose variety is best for the environment and produces no waste.
Once you are finished with your athletic equipment, try to find a new home for it. People rotate in and out of sports all the time. Just as you are ready to give up inline skating, perhaps you have a friend who has been yearning to try it. Reselling or giving away your equipment is a great way to save it from the trash. The same is true if you donate your used equipment to a thrift store or a charitable organization that could make good use of it (such as a school or youth camp). If you have broken athletic equipment on your hands, try an internet search to see if there’s anyone who can recycle it (I use “how to recycle broken [insert item here]” as my search term).
Laundry tends to pile up in the bedroom. When it’s time to do a load, here are a few considerations for creating a zero-waste laundry room.
Laundry detergent comes in two forms: a plastic bottle or a cardboard box. Because plastic is so harmful to the environment, the best choice is the cardboard box. Once it’s empty, it’s completely recyclable. Sometimes laundry detergent comes inside a plastic bag in the box. Although this plastic bag can be recycled along with plastic grocery bags, it is possible to find laundry detergent that doesn’t contain the bag. Fabric softener comes in two forms, too: liquid or dryer sheets. You should always opt for the liquid form. Those dryer sheets, which seem to be made from innocuous cloth or paper, are in fact made from a chemical-soaked polyester material (read: plastic). They are nothing but garbage, whereas the plastic softener bottle can be recycled. Better yet, skip the fabric softener entirely. While fabric softener manufacturers lead us to believe that their product softens our laundry, what it really does is coat our clothes with a layer of chemicals. These chemicals are linked to health problems like allergies and asthma. To get soft, clean-smelling clothes without the chemicals, rely on that old standby—the clothesline. The only other garbage you’re likely to make during your regular laundry cycle is dryer lint. As mentioned in the composting chapter, lint is okay to place in the compost pile, especially if most of your clothes are made from organic materials.
As you can see, achieving a zero-waste bedroom is simple. Like many other areas of garbage-free life, these principles will help you lead a simpler life. Shopping at vintage clothing stores or organizing a clothes swap with friends will help you save money. Removing the chemicals from your laundry room will help you lead a healthier, more natural life. This idea is continued in the next chapter, which will help you remove the chemicals from your laundry basket.
The Zero-Waste Lifestyle has more to offer: Check out Recycling Plastics: Helpful or Harmful? to brush on recycling know-how.
Reprinted with permission from The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less by Amy Korst (Ten Speed Press, © 2012). Purchase this book in our store: The Zero-Waste Lifestyle.
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