Diary / Lifestyle / Sep 26, 2022
Ashlee Piper's Tips for Reusing Just About Everything
Written by: Alexandra Perron, Managing Editor
I’m on (what feels like) a neverending mission to get better at reusing my empty containers. I’ll keep a takeout container to use for dry goods. I hold on to glass bottles that could double as vases. No mater how many things I keep out of the recycling bin, I still end up filling the bin each week.
Convinced I could be doing more, but not really sure where to start, I sent an email to Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh't: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, for some guidance—and I’m so glad I did.
Below, Piper talks about what can (and should!) be reused, the problems with our recycling system, and how to give your beauty and skincare empties a second life.
Do you have a “golden rule” when it comes to determining if something is worth reusing/repurposing vs recycling?
I have a few, actually!
I look at packaging differently nowadays. My grandmother, who lived to the ripe and wonderful age of a month shy of 109, used to wash and reuse tinfoil, plastic margarine tubs, glass wine bottles—basically everything because she was a total Depression era gal. So, whenever I am faced with a used container, I try to look beyond its original function and see if there are ways it can fit into my life. Can this toner bottle become a plant spritzer? A vermouth mister? A cute vase for a pretty wildflower stem?
Because aluminum and glass have infinitely better recycling systems and recyclability (and they're easier to give to others for reuse), I actually try to reuse plastic packaging as much as possible.
I look for functions like screw-off caps and lids (which make for easy refilling), pumps and sprays (that are awesome for making everything from room spray to oh-so-of-the-moment hand sanitizer to homemade perfume).
I try to revitalize the packaging as best I can. For instance, acetone can usually remove most labels or writing from packaging. Does the bottle look more appealing and get the creative juices flowing better now that the branding isn't smacking you in the face?
What’s one thing people ALWAYS throw away that they should or can be reusing?
It's funny because people will be very dedicated kitchen recyclers and then completely forget about their laundry and bathrooms. I think the easiest items to upcycle that get thrown away a lot are pump plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles. Some of them are so pretty (you can even paint them) and with so many refill programs and storefronts, you can easily clean and refill these to give you years of use. Cosmetics are notoriously difficult to recycle because they're often a mix of materials that can't be recycled in most municipalities. So, it's always good to opt for as little packaging as possible when you're replacing an item.
Any suggestions on things that can be reused from beauty,skin, and personal care products?
Sure, the sky's really the limit here. Wash and reuse mascara wands to groom brows or to clean grout in your home, or to care for baby animals— I bottle fed an orphaned kitten during quarantine and he loved getting little face scratches with a cleaned mascara wand. Old makeup pans and palettes from eyeshadows and lipsticks can be cleaned and used to hold paints, medications for travel, etc, foundation bottles with droppers can be used for holding bath oils and tinctures and face oils you create or buy in bulk. Skincare jars are awesome cleaned up as travel jewelry or supplement or hair accessory holders, or just travel holders for your other creams.
Takeout containers and glass jars seem like obvious things to wash and reuse — what are your go-tos?
Exactly what you mentioned. The sustainability movement has gotten so product driven. Which on one hand is awesome because it means that sustainability-minded consumers are a real bracket to be marketed to. But it's also bad because the heart of sustainability is using what you have. We don't need more stuff produced—we need to effectively and responsibly use what's already been produced. Moreover, eco marketing means that spending money is a barrier to entry for a lot of people to feel they can live sustainably—and that's so bonkers to me because these sustainable practices aren't new, they've been used out of necessity by low-income, BIPOC, and other cultures for generations. All of that is to say that I've been in this game for awhile and while I have access to lots of fun sustainable products, I mostly reach for items I already have.
What’s one item you were surprised at being able to reuse or repurpose?
Oh gosh, the DIYs for repurposing items always surprise and delight me. A friend did a DIY where she used old nylons or those net produce bags to make a body buffer, plastic milk jugs can be repurposed to make shovels, mini greenhouses and bird feeders (Google it; you'll freak!). I also just like repurposing containers to hold a similar product that I can make or get via refill. For instance, I'm an oil cleansing lover. I have a very fancy glass bottle of oil cleanser I sometimes buy because I love it, but it's pricey. So, now, I keep the bottle and just refill with my own DIY oil cleanser of olive and sesame oil with my own fave essential oil inside. It works just as well for me, but gives me an extra-fancy feeling.
Why isn’t recycling always the answer? What’s wrong with the current system?
Phew! Well, we could write an entire book on this, but there are a few Cliff's Notes as to why recycling should be considered a last resort as opposed to our primary way forward. Firstly, the system, especially when it comes to plastic, is broken. It simply wasn't built to handle the amount of plastic we create and toss. As it stands now, about only 8% of plastic that actually makes its way to a recycling receptacle gets recycled. That's staggering and shocking. Moreover, plastic is not infinitely recyclable. What that means is that it can only 'come back' as plastic once or twice more (depending upon the type) because each recycling process degrades the material. Recycling also requires serious resources—think staffing, energy, fuel for trucks transporting materials to and fro—you get the picture.
When it comes to other materials like glass and aluminum, recycling systems are more established and effective and the materiality is better (aluminum, for instance, is infinitely recyclable, meaning it can keep coming back as aluminum, having its own little Groundhog Day, minus Bill Murray), but the energy drains of recycling still stand. People or machines have to transport, sort, and engage in the process, which is very resource intensive.
Lastly, humans just aren't that great at recycling and in many municipalities, soiled packaging, misplaced (meaning it shouldn't be in there because it can't be recycled), too small or too wet of items, etc can spoil the entire bunch, rendering an entire recycling pickup destined for the landfill. Unlike other countries that have standardized recycling (whereas in the US, it varies sometimes by city, town, etc what can actually be recycled) and training on how to recycle, we don't have such standardization or incentivization to do the right thing. All of these elements make recycling an important thing to do, but also pretty ineffective when it comes to trying to save the planet.