Why reuse beats recycling

Terry Lambert

The lowly dust bunny may not seem to offer much in the way of raw materials, but artist Paul Hazelton has managed to turn household dust into art. This may be the ultimate case of reusing instead of tossing or recycling, but you don’t have to be a fine artist to find ways to reuse instead of recycle. 


Photo courtesy of Nina J. G.(CC No Derivatives)

The Many Facets of Reuse

Reuse means many things, from household hints for simple residential reuse of everyday items to salvaging of whole houses for their many reusable parts:

  • Metal, glass and plastic containers
  • Steel drums
  • Wooden shipping pallets
  • Cardboard shipping cartons
  • Packaging materials such as foam peanuts, sheet chipboard and bubble wrap


Many companies gain enormous public relations value by advertising their conscientious reuse of by-products from manufacturing. When automobile companies advertise zero-waste assembly lines, they reap positive press and lower manufacturing costs. 

The waste materials from one industry can benefit another:

  • foundry sand from casting is re-purposed as substrate for roads, potting soil and manufactured soil
  • iron and steel slags find new life as “all purpose aggregate”
  • coal combustion products like fly ash and bottom ash can be used to make concrete and wallboard

Time Machine

Reusing major architectural elements, doors, windows, moldings and appliances from old homes is big business. Not only are these salvaged pieces kept out of the waste stream, they are preserved and given new life in modern homes. 

Anyone who wanders the packed aisles of a salvage yard will notice that older house parts are generally more substantial, heavier, and of higher quality than mass-produced pieces made today. When you can purchase a three-inch thick, five-foot wide oak front door for just about the cost of a big-box store’s solid-core door, reuse makes financial and artistic sense. 

These salvage yards are like time machines, gathering and preserving items from as much as two centuries past. By reusing these Victorian, Edwardian, Craftsman and Mission mantels, moldings, chandeliers and other pieces, you save money on gas and delivery expenses while adding charm and history to your own remodeling project. 


The greatest efficiency in the consumer-manufacturing cycle come from avoiding the need for something to start. Next best is reuse. Reuse, whether it’s turning a milk jug into a bird feeder or keeping 10,000 wooden pallets in a shipping yard, offers great efficiency:

  • harvesting, mining or growing of raw materials needed in manufacturing is reduced
  • fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production go down both from the original manufacturing steps and in transporting materials, including the final product
  • consumers from companies to individual families save money by extending the life of useful products
  • companies save time by having materials on hand without waiting for deliveries
  • consumers save space by repurposing materials, reducing storage needs


Some items or containers should not be reused, for safety’s sake. Never repackage chemicals, medicines or caustic household cleaners in unlabeled containers, for example. Materials or items too damaged to use as is may require disassembly or repair. Industries and businesses especially need to monitor the natural degradation of quality through extensive reuse of materials. 

Four Steps

Reuse is second only to reducing consumption in the Environmental Protection Agency’s solid waste management hierarchy. You can easily incorporate reuse into your business and home through four steps:

  1. Reuse the material for its intended purpose or a new purpose
  2. Give it away to someone who can reuse it
  3. Sell it to recover some of its original cost while still allowing its reuse
  4. Buy used items to save money and extend the materials’ lifespan

By any measure, reuse beats recycling, saving money, materials and time.