I feel guilty admitting this, but I’m not a passionate recycler.
Yes, I separate plastic bottles and cans from everything else. And I always turn the lights off—yes, I do mean LED lights—when I leave the room.
But when it comes to really getting green in all ways—composting in the kitchen, running my errands by bike, consulting Seafood Watch whenever fish is on the menu—I have trouble going the extra mile.
Of course, my kids really embrace recycling: They were born at the dawn of global warming awareness. They understand all things green, and speak with ease about sustainability and alternative energy.
Eventually, I had my own epiphany: Recycling is basically about saving—and that I understand. For a personal finance geek like me, extending the life of everyday items is music to my ears.
Just as you let your money work for you by saving and investing for retirement, you can let some of your previously purchased stuff work for you by saving and repurposing it.
That’s something my parents understood long before recycling was routine. Both Depression-generation children born in 1929, they took “waste not, want not” to the max.
In particular, my parents grasped the idea of thrift: the value of breathing new life into items whose usefulness has seemingly expired. (These days, it’s sometimes called “upcycling.”)
My mother, Shirley, never met an empty Kleenex box that she couldn’t reuse to help pack underwear and socks for a trip out of town.
She’d heap such items into her “Magic closet,” where she organized odds and ends that she was sure had some future purpose—for her or someone else in need.
It wasn’t just a matter of saving money, or an excuse to hoard. My mom’s goal was to show her kids how value can extend beyond the conventional expiration date.
Clothes, for example. My mom made that “Magic closet” her own vintage shop—her Salvation Shirley— including an array of dresses, blouses, handbags and shoes, all pristine and ready for me (and now my daughter and niece) to pluck and wear.
The 1970s Diane von Furstenberg dress. The 1980s midriff-baring tennis outfit (go Mom!).
The endless pairs of 1950s pants that I wore throughout high school, wowing fashionista friends who wanted to emulate the look but couldn’t find it anywhere.
Generations of savers
I was reminded how my mom’s commitment to creative reuse set a lasting family example when I read about Mary “Pink” Mullaney of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.
Pink’s family wrote a lovely tribute that went viral on the Internet last month after her death at age 85.
Among this gregarious granny’s valuable lessons, according to the obituary: “Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctors’ waiting rooms for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, ‘Because if someone wants to contact me that would be nice.’”
It’s clear that Pink was an incurable saver and sharer, wonderful qualities that rubbed off on her six children and 17 grandchildren.
For Pink, a devout Catholic, finding renewed uses for her property was an article of faith. “Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass,” Pink would advise.
Such thrift teaches us that the motivations for creative reuse extend beyond environmental concerns.
This is also a way to transmit the values of resourcefulness and respect for property to the next generation. After all, research shows that parents are the number one influence on a child’s financial behavior.
As an exercise, see if your kids can come up with some new uses for everyday objects around the house.
The power of creative reuse
The fact is that when it comes to recycling, we are not doing all that we can. The EPA estimates that Americans recycled 34.7% of their waste in 2011.
But half of what we didn’t recycle was, well, recyclable: 28% paper and paperboard, and another 22% plastic and metal.
It’s easy to see how we could be tossing useful household items before considering further applications for them.
Instead, think like my mom and Pink.
Empty egg cartons can inspire art projects. Coffee grounds can fertilize your garden. Toilet paper tubes can organize stray cords or secure rolls of wrapping paper.
An empty CD spindle can become a bagel tote!
We could all stand to expand our definition of “recyclable.”
What are some creative ways that you, your parents, or your kids have reused household items?
Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability who spearheaded Money as You Grow. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.