Green Home Detective: Identifying 10 Reusable Household Items


I remember my mother telling me that when my older siblings were little ones, she’d gift them their own toys or clothes for Christmas. “I’d just wrap them up as presents and they didn’t even know the difference,” she recalled. “They were delighted to open something new.”

It may be challening to get away with that sort of deceptive frugality these days: kids are sharper. But we can still find a treasure chest of reusable everyday objects in our cabinets and drawers. If the goal is to recondition society’s throw-away behavior, then it’s a sin to toss in the bin what can be born again.

Here are a few common items with a longer shelf life:

Glass Mason Jars


After you enjoy the pasta sauce, clean the jar and lid and use to store food, such as berries, or corn for popping. Vanessa tipped us off to how to keep strawberries fresh longer by storing unwashed ones in the very jars your grandma used for pickles and preserves. The old Ball glass is also handy for shaking your homemade balsamic vinegrette salad dressing. Make your own scented candles housed in the jars as gifts. Use for sipping ice tea (or moonshine) in the summer.

Shoe Boxes


Don’t dispose of these useful cardboard boxes until they have been reused. Just last night we filled several with homemade cupcakes for the school bake sale. My kids often use them to make dioramas (mini three-dimensional worlds or landscapes in a box) to accompany book reports. Or, just use them as intended, to house and label “important” shoes, such as your wedding or ballet slippers. You can also make great creative use of paper rolls.

Worn out towels, sheets, and undershirts


I used to love sorting through my mom’s rag box to find the best fabrics among the heap to sew doll clothes. Worn out and torn towels and sheets and holy cotton underware can be born again as excellent rags for cleaning, while letting you spare the so-called handy wipes marketed for this purpose. Use them, wash them, reuse them. It’s rare that something becomes too tired to be used as a rag.

Computer paper


The paper you print out for work has a flip side that can should be used as scrap paper for notes, memos and even artwork. It’s fun when my kids etch off a masterpiece with crayons or markers, and the back contains an old travel itinerary. Reuse this paper for your grocery lists, to write directions (not all cars have navigation systems) or for anything useful.

Paper Bags


Sure, we aim to tote reusable shopping and lunch sacks, but sometimes we end up with the paper (Noah’s bagels, party gifts, medication). I’ve given up trying to get one of my daughters to take charge of her own reusable lunch sack, so I reuse bags that I save from various stores. Fortunately, they have a recycle bin at her school for kids bringing paper.  The paper sacks also can  be helpful for making book covers or storing and preserving onions and potatoes in your kitchen cabinet or drawer. And it goes without saying that gift bags given to you or your children should always be recycled when you give a gift.

Leftover Building Materials


If you’ve recently finished a remodeling job, put on your carpenter’s hat and use remaining wood scarps to build a dog house, mailbox, window boxes or a bird house. You can also donate to Habitat for Humanity, which benefits from your doors, windows and other rmaterials for its construction projects.

Egg Cartons


Many schools are scrambling to get their hands on these cartons for school projects, including eco tasks such as planting spring seedlings.  Since the cartons (cardboard or styrofoam) contain natural dividers, they are a natural for separating your beads and paints or even valuables and jewlery housed in your dresser drawers.



Yes, we have no ripe bananas. Who does? They go bad faster than a blind date with a guy who forgot his wallet. Luckily for us, rotting bananas make good banana bread and smoothies. There are so many ways to rescue brown bananas: in pancakes, muffins, you name it. With so many benefits derived from this nutritional, tropical fruit, you don’t need to reach for the compost bin just cause they are looking ugly. They can still do your body and recipes good.

Holiday Greeting Cards

Many cards are too lovely to trash them after an occasion. We string ours up on a fisherman’s wire cord in the dining room for display. If you saved last year’s greetings, reuse the cover for this year’s gift tags or to decorate a gift box. We’re always hunting down bookmarks at out house and the cover of a cute card works great.

Outdated Yellow Pages and Phone Books


They replace these massive directories every year (and also will collect them for you for recycling). Before getting rid of the old ones, cut out pages you rely on: the Chinese take-out, beauty salon, zip codes guides for mailing, helpful maps, environmental services. Put it all in a folder and create a micro version for your car or downstairs office. If you’re really feeling motivated, enter the numbers into your PDA or mobile phone, and recycle the paper.

Get more green gift ideas.

Image: Scott Feldstein

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.