The 4 R’s of Sustainable Waste Management #2

As gardeners who support sustainable environmental practices, we affirm the 4 Rs slogan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (i.e. compost). The first article in this series focused on reducing consumption as a way to scale back our waste.  This second one covers reuse programs that keep materials out of the waste stream.

Reuse involves taking old items that you might normally throw away and finding a new use for them.  It’s one of the strategies of Sustainable Materials Management, an approach that takes into account entire life cycles of the materials we use every day. Before discarding anything, ask yourself, “Is there something else I could use this for?”

Reusing products is often the forgotten step in the 4 R’s process and has many benefits.

Like consumption reduction (the first R), reuse helps to curb the need for new items and the materials and energy that go into them. Moreover, it helps to keep waste out of the landfills.

The impact of this waste on the environment, and particularly on our climate, is significant.  According to the EPA, the average person throws away 81 pounds of clothing per year, adding up to 3.8 billion pounds of unnecessary waste to our landfills. When textiles and other organics are placed in a landfill that is an anaerobic (lacking oxygen) environment, the decomposers will convert and release the carbon in these materials as methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 23 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.  Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane gas emissions in the United States.

Here are some reuse options we can adopt right now:

  • Maintain and repair products like appliances, bikes, and clothes rather than discard and replace them. Many products are thrown away when all they need is a bit of attention. Look for companies and organizations that offer to repair an item for little or no cost. For example, check out the Charlottesville Community Recycle-A-Bike.
  • Donate outdated and unused items to help others those who cannot afford the latest product or to recycle into new products.
    • Donate obsolete or outdated computer and other electronics equipment. Open Source Recycling, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization, accepts donated computers and offers re-purposed computers to people who can’t afford new technology.  Other local sites for electronic recycling include Best Buy, Staples, and Crutchfield. Click here for general information.
    • Donate unwanted books, clothes, household items, appliances and more. Give to local thrift shops, community centers, churches, schools and non-profits that accept used goods. Support these groups even more by purchasing goods from them!  Click here for a list for the Charlottesville/Albemarle County area.  Be sure to check the individual organization’s donation guidelines, such as these for the Habitat for Humanity
  • Resell used items with events like garage sales and online resale sites to allow used goods to move from hand to hand and return a portion of the original cost to the former owners. By purchasing used items, you help to keep materials out of the landfill and reduce the need to manufacture new products. Another option is to donate to consignment shops where accounts have been set up to benefit local non-profits.  Consignment operations with accounts that benefit the Piedmont Master Gardeners Association, for instance, can be found here.
  • Rent or borrow tools that are needed for only one project rather than buy them and have them set idle and deteriorating for years. Share big items like an extension ladder with family and friends. If you are a non-profit and in need of some well-used tables, tents, and other items for an event, contact the Special Events coordinator for the Piedmont Master Gardeners Association to see if these items are available. Send your inquiry to

Additional Reuse options:

  • “Lug a mug” for “to-go” drinks.
  • Take a reusable water bottle along rather than using disposable paper or plastic cups or bottles; read more about plastic pollution here.
  • Store your sandwich in a reusable container instead of wrapping it in aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
  • Purchase refillable or recycled pens and pencils.
  • Remember to take reusable tote bags with you when shopping. Keep some in your car.
  • Use washable rags and cloth napkins instead of paper products.
  • Make use of your old toothbrush to scrub small, hard-to-reach areas when cleaning your house.
  • Re-purpose old glass jars for storing nails, screws, and office supplies.
  • Re-purpose old items for use in crafts and home décor projects.
  • Stick to recyclable or compostable materials for kids’ art projects. Look here for tips on how to properly dispose of the arts and crafts that come home and how to reduce the amount of trash created in the first place.

There are endless other ways to reduce our waste and trash by reusing or re-purposing items. Often, all it takes is a little creativity!

As Extension Master Gardeners, we foster stewardship and sustainability through horticulture and environmental best practices. We are committed to improving the lives of people in our community and to protecting the land and environment that sustains us. Less waste leads to fewer disposal facilities, resulting in fewer environmental issues. Check back for next weeks’ topic on the third R: recycling.  And, a reminder to join the international Plastic Free July Challenge.