21 Disposable Products You Can Reuse

by Paul Michael on 14 March 2012 45 comments

It’s said that we live in a disposable society. But the word disposable is a misnomer. Disposable is considered throwaway, something you use once and dump, regardless of the life that may be left in it. As a frugal shopper with a concern for the state of our environment, that just won’t do.

I often reuse many so-called “one-time-use” items, and I asked friends, family, and colleagues to tell me which disposable items they squeeze more life from. Here’s my list, including some of the surprising ideas I was given. (See also: 25 Things to Throw Out Today)

1. Butter Wrappers

If you’re like most people, you unwrap your butter, pop the stick into your handy holder, and throw the wrapper away. But wait a second — instead of trashing the wrappers, keep them in a sandwich bag. The next time you need to grease a baking tray or dish, you’ve got something all ready to go.

2. One-Day Contact Lenses

There have been great advances made in contact lenses. The ones I am wearing right now, for astigmatism, are relatively new. And there are lenses that can last months or just one day. But those one-day lenses have a lot of people thinking about extended use. Can you wear them again? Even just one more day would double their life span and halve your costs every year.

Well, it seems that the answer is yes, if you clean them correctly and store them well. Use a bubbling hydrogen peroxide solution, which is designed to remove germs and bacterial matter, and you should be fine using one-day contacts for an additional day or two. The contact lens industry says you are at risk for eye infection if you reuse one-day contacts, but I’ve been doing it for two years, and my eyes are just fine. However, if you want further advice on the subject, you'll find several articles on the Internet that have been written on this subject, including the UK's The Daily Mail.

However, I think the most telling evidence comes in the legal wording you'll find hidden in the fine print on every box of one-day contact lenses. It's also printed in dozens of articles at the FDA's site, including here, here, and here (PDFs). It reads thus, and relates to lenses prescribed specifically for daily wear:

Eye Care Practitioners may prescribe the lenses either for single-use disposable wear or frequent/planned replacement wear with cleaning, disinfection and scheduled replacement (see "Wearing Schedule"). When prescribed for frequent/planned replacement wear, the lenses may be disinfected using a chemical disinfection system.

3. Disposable Film Cameras

35mm film is making a comeback. It was bound to happen. What was once out of style becomes vogue again, and vice-versa. When you buy a cheap disposable film camera, don’t hand the whole thing in to the photo department at the store. Strip it, remove the film, and replace it. You can find complete instructions for dismantling and reassembling on Kevin's Kamera blog.

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4. Disposable Digital Cameras

These cameras are a whole different ball game. They are specifically designed to be one-time-use products, so the camera companies can make big money by charging you to download the photos and then reselling the camera to someone else. Well, you can get around that. It’s not super easy, but if you have a soldering iron and some patience, you can make that disposable digital camera into a camera you can use again and again, downloading the pictures free at home whenever you want. Complete instructions are available from eHow.

5. Disposable Camcorders

Disposable camcorders are also built to be reused…just not by the general public. The idea is that you hand them in, your videos are downloaded, and you get them back. But if you want to practice a little hacking at home, you can turn a one-time-use camcorder into a very reusable and handy device. Of course, since the price for the item is higher, the level of difficulty goes up. There are full instructions at I-Hacked.

6. Plastic “Silverware”

I’ve seen plastic knives, forks, and spoons in the dish dryer before. I was a little confused at first — isn’t the whole point to save on doing dishes? But it’s possible to get a good week of use from one set of plastic cutlery before recycling it. National Geographic has more on the subject. They do say that after about a week, the cutlery should not be used for sanitary reasons, but even then you can always use it for other tasks, including handy markers for plants. Just write whatever you planted in Sharpie on the handle and plunge it into the soil.

7. Dryer Sheets

They make our clothes smell great, and how do we reward them? With a one-way trip to the dump. Well, dryer sheets should not go straight into the trash. They have many uses. You can put them inside shoes and clothes drawers to keep everything smelling fresh. You can use them to clean the bottom of a dirty iron. And you can run them along baseboards, ceiling fans, and bookcases, just like one of those Swiffer dusters.

8. Plastic Yogurt Containers

Don’t just bin the yogurt pot when you’ve finished with the delicious contents. If you’re someone with green fingers, you’ll find that yogurt pots are the perfect size for seedling starter pots. You can, of course, buy small seedling pots from a hardware store, but for the same price (or less, actually), you can use yogurt pots and get a healthy snack thrown into the bargain. If you buy the bigger, quart-sized yogurt pots, clean them out and use them to store leftover food, chicken stock, soup, and other perishables.

9. Plastic Bags From Newspapers

The newspaper comes to you in a thin plastic bag to keep it protected from the elements (and it’s also another space for advertisers to shout at you). When you bring in the newspaper, the bag goes into the trash. But wait — if you live in a city that’s prone to rain, hold onto those bags. They’re small enough to fit in a purse or bag without taking up any room, but make a perfect umbrella bag. When you have to take your wet umbrella indoors, either for work or visiting friends, simply pop it in the bag.

10. Swim Diapers

My first reaction was “seriously?!” But after talking to a few parents who’ve done this, it makes good sense. Unlike regular diapers, swim diapers are made to take much more punishment. They’re designed to withhold the water, obviously, so you can put them in the wash two or three times (at least) before they start coming loose at the sides. Of course, don’t wash a poopy diaper; that’s taking it too far. But if it’s just wet, throw it in the washing machine. When it’s washed, let it AIR DRY. Otherwise, it will become a hard and crunchy mess. With the average pack of swim diapers costing around $12, you’ll rack up the savings in summer.

11. Plastic Takeout Containers

When you order Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Moroccan, or any other takeout cuisine, it will often come in small plastic containers. Give them a good wash and reuse them. They are obviously good for holding leftover food, but they’re also great containers for your craft room or workshop. I use them for screws, nuts, bolts, and pencils. Not only are they the perfect size and stackable, but you sometimes also get a whiff of delicious food just before you start your project!

12. Wine Corks

Other than putting it back into the half-full bottle of wine, what use are these corks? You just throw them out, right? Well, not so fast. Wine corks have many other uses. If you chop them up and add them to soil, they make good moisture-retaining mulch. You can scrub high-carbon kitchen knives with them, or protect the blades. You can even soak them in rubbing alcohol and make cheap and effective fire lighters.

13. Tissue Boxes

Here’s a way to kill two birds with one stone. We all collect plastic grocery bags to use again as trashcan liners and for other shopping trips. Put them inside an empty tissue box — it keeps them all in one place and makes it easy to retrieve one at a time. Keep one in the car, one at home, one in the basement, and so on.

14. DVD/CD Spindles

With the price of blank DVDs and CDs being so affordable, most of us have a few of these spindle packs at home. But when the last disc is used, the spindle goes bye-bye. Well, it shouldn’t have to. You can use it as a handy lunch container for bagel sandwiches. You can turn it upside down and make it into a pen caddy. And wrap computer cables around the spindle before putting on the lid for a very neat and tidy cable organizer.

15. Aluminum Foil

Every American throws away around three pounds of aluminum foil per year. It should all be recycled, but it's not. However, it can be reused very easily. It’s durable, so a quick wash with a kitchen sponge and some soap and water will get it back to life. Just dry it flat, and fold it up. Or fold it several times and cut with scissors — it will really sharpen them up. You can also use it as a paint texture applicator, and you can restore the sheen to steel and chrome by rubbing the metal with foil.

16. Ziploc Bags

It bugs me at how wasteful we are as a society. Ziploc bags are a prime example. They are sturdy enough to be used many times — often a quick rinse with some hot water and a little soap is enough to make them as good as new, but we throw them out. Well, here are some ideas for Ziploc bags after their first use as a humble sandwich bag or food container:

  • Store pantyhose in them, with a corner of the packaging. It will help you keep them separate in the drawer and identify colors.
     
  • Use them as a piping bag. Just snip the corner.
     
  • Make your own inflatable packaging — just insert a straw into the corner, blow, and seal, and you’ve got cheap packing material.
     
  • Fill with crushed ice for a quick cold compress.
     
  • Break up graham crackers inside a Ziploc bag. No mess.

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17. Soda Can Pull Tabs

This one is a direct result of finding a box of soda can pull tabs in our “junk drawer.” I was puzzled. At first I figured they were being collected for my daughter’s school, like those box tops for education. Nope. Turns out, you can make some very beautiful and unique pieces of jewelry out of them, as well as purses, handbags, and even lampshades! Not convinced? Check out this collection of soda can pull tab jewelry at Etsy.com for inspiration.

18. Cardboard Egg Cartons

Let eggs bring you peace. Those egg containers made of the cheap, recycled paper are great for soundproofing a room. They don’t look too pretty, but if you have want to make a room quiet, staple these to the walls. Their design is perfect for absorbing sound waves. You can be creative, painting them different colors and soundproofing a kid's playroom or a workshop. You can also use these same egg cartons as fire lighters, so pack a few for your next camping trip. And finally, they make good containers for things like hair ties or small office supplies (paper clips, brads, elastic bands, and so on).

19. Laundry Detergent Caps

When your bottle of detergent is empty (and I mean really empty), don’t just throw it in the recycle bin. The cap is a great scoop for pet food, ice melt, cat litter, or even as a play toy in the kids’ sandbox.

20. Baby Bottle Nipples

I could write a whole book on the waste that comes from the medical industry. It’s amazing how much could be reused that “cannot” due to strict regulations. One such example is nipples for baby bottles. When you have a baby and feed him/her in hospital with formula, they will put a new nipple on the bottle each time and throw the old one away. They have to. Don’t let them trash it though. It’s yours, paid for through your insurance, so take them home with you. They’re nothing fancy, but they are definitely good backups and can be sterilized and reused several times.

21. Spice Mills

The spice racks in supermarkets have a lot of these “one-time-use” mills, filled with peppercorns, salt, and other spices. The idea is that you buy one, grind away, and chuck the whole thing when it’s empty. But there’s no need to trash a functioning mill, especially as you can refill it for pennies with bulk spices. Of course, the spice mill has been designed to prevent refilling, but there’s an easy way around it. Instructables has instructions for reusing spice mills.

22. Toilet Paper

The great thing about used toilet paper is…nah, not really — just a little fun to end the article.

So, that’s my list, but it’s by no means complete. Think of it as a good start. Now, what do you reuse that most people put straight into the garbage? Do you have some shocking or crazy suggestions? Let us know.

Additional photo credits: PopTopLady, SenorAnderson
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Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

I found newspaper bags useful when I had a leaky right rain boot. I wore the bag over my sock, before putting on the boot, and my foot would stay dry.

Guest's picture
Guest

They are also great as poop bags for when you take the dog for a walk OR bags to carry for dirty diapers on the go!

Guest's picture
Guest

plastic table clothes - I bought a couple for my daughter's birthday 5 years ago - they go to every girl scout meeting - get thrown in the wash & hung to dry - the color has faded - but they are going strong.

Guest's picture
Suzanne Favreau

Save yourself some money and forget the dryer sheets. Most dryer sheets are full of toxic chemicals that you shouldn't be putting near your body. The big plastic yogurt containers with lids make great paint containers, light and easy to carry around the room while you're painting trim. I always save the net bags from onions and oranges and cut them up to use as scrubbies for my pots and pans.

Meg Favreau's picture

At least half of my "Tupperware" is comprised of yogurt and cottage cheese containers. I like cleaning out and saving jam and other glass jars too. If you soak them to take the labels off, they can make nice containers for food gifts, like fridge pickles or oven-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil.

Guest's picture
Guest

common(??) reuses:
newspaper plastic delivery bags and delivery "rubber bands:

if the bag is in good condition, reuse as a "poop scoop"when walking the family pet.... place arm totally in bag, grasp feces, strip the bag off your arm bagging the mess in the process, then a quick rubber band tie to secure all and bag goes into the nearest dumpster/garbage can. YOU never actually touched the mess and the neighbors appreciate its removal.

Guest's picture
Amanda

Anything from holiday or birthday gifts. The boxes, gift bags, tissue, cards, ribbon, bows, etc. I cut them up and use them for scrapbooking and art projects or just re-use them. I haven't had to purchase wrapping stuff or craft paper in years.

Guest's picture
James

I never throw out the plastic bags that your dry cleaning comes in. I reuse them for trash liners as well. you can tie of the top end, turn it inside out and you have a trash bag that's as strong as the ones you buy form the stores.

Guest's picture
phil dehli

dont vent your dryer outside, put a nylon stocking over the exhast, and you would be suprised for all the heat that would put in your house, weve done it for over 30 years now.

Guest's picture

DON'T do this with a gas dryer!

Guest's picture
Guest

This is not a good idea. Venting outside gets rid of all the moisture in the exhaust. Redirecting it into the house can encourage mold and rot.

Guest's picture
Guest

I re-use those smaller plastic bags like produce or bread bags for kitty litter. Also, as much as I usually bring my own bags to the store, you still wind up with some which I use for kitchen and bathroom trash can liners.

I keep any plastic container with a lid (margarine, yogurt, cream cheese), clean them, and mostly use them to give leftovers to guests after they came for dinner. One of my sisters was notorious for never bringing me back my tupperware containers so now I just give her leftovers in a yogurt tub or whatever, and she can recycle it.

Once in a while, if I buy a bottled drink that comes in a plastic bottle, I would rinse out the bottle and fill it up and put it in the freezer to use as an ice pack in the summer for the cooler when going camping or to use as a 'cold bottle' to cool me down in my non-air conditioned apartment.

I often crumple newspaper and put it in my shoes, boots etc so that it absorbs the humidity and smell.

I usually keep a box of baking soda in my fridge; after its been 6 months or so I like to replace it but I don't throw it out. I will then use the 'used' baking soda for cleaning things, unclogging drains etc.

Any 8.5 by 11 paper that still has a blank side gets cut in quarters and is stapled in a bunch for a make shift note pad, great for reminders and lists. I also keep any envelope that comes with bills and what not and use them when I need an envelope. If it had an address pre written on it, I'll just stick an address label on top.

I had fleece pajamas rip beyond repair, so I cut them into squares and they make great dusting cloth.

Peanut butter glass jars make great kids' piggy banks!

Guest's picture
Guest

Man, I'd hate to see what your solution is to storing all this crap in your house.

Guest's picture
Guest

Instead of buying disposable swim diapers and reusing them Just buy a cloth swim diaper.

Guest's picture

Dryer Sheets -- Somewhere (maybe here) I read about sticking one in the vacuum cleaner to freshen as you vacuum. It works.

Parenting Squad's picture

Jam jars can be cleaned and use as drinking glasses - perfect for kids! Plastic grocery store bags can be used for wrapping up dirty diapers, or messy kitchen spills you don't want to put in your disposal.

Parenting Squad's picture

And, bottle caps of all kinds can be cleaned and used in the same way as flash cards. Write numbers or letters on them to use as game tokens, putting in order, etc.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

The dryer sheet idea is great! I'm a soccer player and the dryer sheets have always helped keep my room from smelling too bad.

Guest's picture
Guest

Dryer sheets are also really good to get out static cling. I use them on my cat when she shocks me, on my hair when it is standing on end and we keep one by the thermostate to cover our hands because we always get shocked touching it. Once it comes out of the dryer, it still has a lot of shock absorbtion left and smells nice too!

Guest's picture
Juicer

Great work. My eye doctor, who is a friend, told me to wear them as long as they felt OK and were cleaned daily. He said the once a day was to sell more contacts...nothing more. I sometimes get up to a week out one pair.

Guest's picture
Guest

You may not want to re-use the toilet paper itself, but you can use the toilet paper cores (and paper towel cores). Stuff them with your dryer lint and they can be used for starting fires in the fireplace or wood stove.

Guest's picture
AL

I use toilet paper cores to store misc electronics cables (for computer, audio equipment etc). Just stack the cores (with the holes facing upward) in an empty shoe box, and place the cables inside the cores. It's a great way to sort your cables in an easy-to-find manner and reduce clutter in your "junk" drawer.

Guest's picture
Lynzey

Toss a used dryer sheet into a pan or dish with burnt food and fill with HOT water. Come back in an hour and the burnt on food will slide right off!

Guest's picture
Guest

Egg cartons can be cut apart and placed inside (tall) boots to help maintain their shape .

Guest's picture
kath

We use the plastic newspaper bags when we travel. They are the perfect size for shoes to fit into (1 shoe/bag unless it's flip-flops). This prevents dirt and sand from the shoes from getting all over our clothes.
I also saw a great idea on Pinterest from Apartment Therapy for reusing soda can tabs as picture hangers. I haven't tried it yet, but they seem to be pretty confident in it.
http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/tried-tested-hanging-art-with-142868

Kentin Waits's picture

Wine corks glued to a backer board make a great message center/bulletin board in a kitchen too! Great tips.

Guest's picture
Jill Welch

Some people may think this is really gross, but it works well for our little family -- and saves us money that we had literally been throwing away: One cloth napkin for each meal for three days.

Each family member uses their cloth napkin for breakfast, lunch and dinner; after every meal, they clip it to their personal marker which hangs in the kitchen. If the napkin is too soiled to be reused, then of course a new one can be used. After dinner on the third day, our 11 y/o daughter deposits them in the laundry bin and clips a new napkin to each marker.

It may sound unsanitary or extreme frugality, but we are not messy eaters so there is VERY little soil accumulating on the cloth napkin. (Guests are ALWAYS given clean, fresh napkins!)There have often been times after the third day of use that our napkins are still clean and tidy. Not only do we save money by not purchasing paper napkins, we are hopefully helping the environment.

Guest's picture
NE Kelly

I use wash cloths that I bought on clearance for the same reason. They don't match the kitchen or the bathroom washcloths so it is easy to keep them dedicated to this one use.

Guest's picture
Guest

Here's a great link to a superb bag that can be made from 117 Tesco bags. Also includes instructions so that anyone can make it themselves.

http://www.co-oproduct.org/component/mtree/plastic/plastic-bags/tesco-ba...

Guest's picture
Guest

DON'T CLEAN YOUR CONTACTS WITH HYDROGEN PEROXIDE ! Back in the 80s you used contacts until your prescription chaged or you lost them. You had to keep a chemistry lab in the bathroom so you could keep your contacts clean. The whole point of disposable contacts is to prevent infection. It's not a sceem. Should you get hydrogen peroxide in your eyes from your contacts chances are you won't need contacts any more, but you will need a white cane.

Guest's picture
Lisa Under the Redwoods

I used the hydrogen peroxide based cleaners on my contacts for years. There is a special container with a metal disc that causes a chemical change to the hydrogen peroxide. The biggest problem with the system is you have to wait the specified time for the chemical reaction to take place. If you put the contacts in your eye too soon, it hurts like heck but does not blind you.

Guest's picture

Luckily I already avoid most of these, and do reuse several of them in the ways mentioned. I am however, a little skeeved out about the swim diapers (and I use cloth!). I can't even imagine using a disposable digital camera, that just seems outrageous. I used disposable film cameras back in the day but I probably won't ever do it again.

Guest's picture

My choice is just not to buy disposables. Why not just use real stuff, and avoid them altogether?

Guest's picture
Guest

Other uses for wine corks:

Corn cob holder holders - stick a corn holder in each end, also looks good in the table setting.

Garden markers: All you need are some bamboo skewers and a sharpie.

Slice them up and glue them to bottoms of lamps, vases, furniture legs...protect wood floors and furniture.

Guest's picture
Jack

Floss-those "F" shaped little flossers can be washed and re-used if the string ain't broke. Also, after washing your hands, save the paper towel-after all you only used it once to dry "clean" hands.

Guest's picture
Guest

It's unfortunate to see the myth about egg cartons as soundproofing tool perpetuated here.

1. The name comes from the shape of acoustic foam, which looks like egg cartons, but is actually acoustic foam. Nobody actually uses egg cartons for this function (at least, not successfully-- many people have foolishly tried, of course).

2. Acoustic foam is not a soundproofing tool-- its purpose is to improve the sonic character of a room (e.g. limiting reverberation). It is not an effecting sound deadening (sound "proofing") product.

Two seconds of googling will verify the above.

http://soundproofing.org/infopages/myths.htm

http://www.advicewatch.org/soundproofing.htm

http://soundproofdrywall.net/egg-carton-soundproofing
(this one clearly shows "Egg Carton" is a reference to the egg-carton shaped acoustic foam and not actual egg cartons)

Guest's picture
Guest

And even if it did work, stapling something that's "great for starting fires" to the kids' playroom wall is perhaps not the height of wisdom!
Most of these items simply should not be purchased in the first place.

Guest's picture
Guest

As a waitress/ bartender I have access to LOTS of wine corks. I have use them to make a wine inspired wreath, door stops. and my favorite ....hat rack I used leftover trim ( for my house) 1 1/2 inch leftover small nails from a previous project and Lots of corks. The trim goes up on the wall about 3 to 6 inches from the ceiling and I inversly put a nail about every6 inches apart(measured ) and the I slide a cork tilted slightly upward with the nail head away from you . I then put up my husband's many baseball caps on them. The caps are up out of the way not laying around. You can doo this over doorways or anywhere that is about 6 inches wide,...no clutter

Guest's picture
Araxie

When you have certain pets, a good deal of these sort of items never go to waste. We have a parrot and rats, and they LOVE to chew. Anything plastic is either recycled, or often given to them.

Guest's picture
Guest

I love reusing glass jars and containers from jam.. just melt off the label and you've got some where to put your office supplies! I also like to use a hot glue gun to write on them as well, such as "pens" or "markers" and then you can paint over it when its dry and the glue part will stick out.

Guest's picture
Guest

1. Don't use dryer sheets--they are unhealthy. Bad chemicals. Put a little vinegar in your rinse and it will soften items.

2. Sorry, I just can't get with the washing of the swim diapers! Too gross.

I never used swim diapers, just made sure a regular diaper was on tightly. If a child pees, the swim diaper won't hold it anyway, since it will already be saturated with water from swimming. If a child poops, any kind of diaper--even cloth--will keep it in place, so you have time to get the kid out and changed.

Let's face it--if a child is in a diaper in the pool, the pee is going in the pool.

Am I correct in my thinking, or is there some benefit to the swim diaper?

Guest's picture
Guest

Yes, there is a reason to use a swim diaper rather than a regular disposable diaper, especially in pools. A regular disposable diaper will get completely saturated quickly, and when it does, you will notice little gel beads in the diaper. Leave the baby in the pool a little longer and the diaper will explode ( not violently!) and these beads and diaper material will be in the pool water and get into the filter which causes huge problems. Do not use regular disposable diapers for swimming! If you are environmentally conscious and/or frugal, get the reusable diapers made specifically for swimming.

Guest's picture
Katie

when reusing plastic, make sure it's food safe. I'm pretty sure the containers they use for CDs are not food safe plastic...

Guest's picture
Aj

When we finish a container of juice I cut it rightin in the middle so I can use the top as a funnel or open bag closure n then I use the bottom half and embellish the top so no sharp edges and I use it as a trash can, basket,Halloween bag, and containers for multiple item

Guest's picture
Guest

Some great suggestions here! Though I've gotta say: fabric softener/dryer sheets smell like poisonous death. There's nothing "fresh" about them. You want "fresh"? Clean with soap/baking soda/white vinegar/water and open a window. Sorry for the rant, but dryer sheets are noxious. Otherwise, awesome suggestions.