top of page

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Upcycle

Fewer items in landfills helps mitigate climate change

Your trash can isn’t magic. When you throw something “away,” it doesn’t cease to exist. It simply begins a new journey as junk. And unfortunately, trash has negative impacts on our global climate.

A landfill – also known as a dump – has been designed to isolate trash from the surrounding natural environment, improving sanitation in local communities. For example, concrete or plastic linings can cover the ground of a landfill to keep liquid garbage from oozing into the ground, and trash is often crushed into compact cubes and then buried to keep it from blowing all over the place.

in the us....jpg

Graphic: US EPA

But while landfills are necessary, that doesn’t mean they’re good for the earth. In fact, they damage the environment and contribute to climate change.

  • As garbage decomposes, methane is released. Methane is a greenhouse gas and a contributor to climate change. Landfills are the third-largest human-created emitters of methane in the U.S., contributing 15% of these emissions annually.

  • Other gases released by landfills, including nitrogen and organic compounds, contribute to climate change and can cause poor local air quality. Liquid from decomposing materials can escape liners and lids and contaminate local water supplies and soil.

  • Landfills take up space that could otherwise be set aside as natural habitat.

Not only is trash bad for the earth when it ends up in landfills; but when we throw things away and replace them with new items, we’re using up the natural resources that go into making products and generating emissions during manufacturing and transportation. Our buying adds up: the consumption of new goods is responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And rich countries such as the U.S. generate the lion’s share of consumption. A typical American’s annual carbon consumption is five times higher than the global average.

The good news is that we can change our consumption habits to make a positive change. By finding ways to avoid generating as much waste in the first place and using better methods to dispose of items we’re done using, we can reduce our environmental impact.

Consider these four strategies:

  • Reduce. One great way to avoid adding trash to landfills is by buying and using less in the first place. Reducing your consumption doesn’t mean you have to miss out. With a little creativity, you can shrink your environmental impact without feeling deprived – and you’ll likely save money in the process.  

    • Reduce paper use by reading newspapers and other publications digitally.

    • Try new authors at the library first. If you enjoy their work and want to support them with a purchase, give their books as gifts or treat yourself to another of their titles.

    • Home décor can feel new again with fresh paint or a new arrangement of furniture. If you do want an all-new look, consider a smaller item – say, a new slipcover rather than replacing the sofa.

    • Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans generate 25% more waste than usual. To cut down, consider giving experiences rather than gifts – for example, museum memberships, restaurant gift certificates, or tickets to concerts. And you can never go wrong with home-made cookies in a thrifted tin.

    • Keep vehicles and appliances in good working order with regular maintenance to extend their usable lifespans.

    • When it comes to clothes, a crop of innovative services now offer rentals for prom dresses, formal wear, and other outfits you don’t use every day, giving you an alternative to buying something new you’ll only wear once.

    • Consider renting or borrowing rather than buying when it comes to rarely-used tools, furniture, or other equipment. Depending on where you live, it may even be more economical to rent a car for occasional use rather than buy one!

    • Outdoors, choose plants for your garden that are native to the local environment, which are more likely to thrive without artificial fertilizers or extra water.

    • Plan your cooking for the week to ensure you’ll completely use up fresh produce and perishables. With efficient planning, you’ll buy less and waste less.


  • Reuse. Items you already have can often do the job just as well as new purchases. Before heading to the store, carefully consider what’s already available.

    • Shop your own closet before buying a new outfit. Often, forgotten items can seem like new when freshly accessorized.

    • Fabric shopping bags have caught on to replace single-use plastic or paper – but what about the plastic bags in the produce aisle or the Ziploc bags you use to pack your lunch? Consider buying reusable containers, or simply wash and reuse your existing plastic bags.

    • Make sure to stock your car, bicycle, or backpack with a few bags so a quick stop at the store on the way home doesn’t mean bringing home fresh plastic.

    • Innovative stores are cropping up to offer refill services for items such as shampoo and dish soap. Reuse your plastic, glass, or metal containers each time you visit.

    • Another great way to promote reuse is by inviting friends and family to swap belongings they no longer need. Get a group together to swap clothing, books, baby goods, recreational gear, or toys – a social way to share goods and receive new-to-you treasures.

    • Thrift stores have been promoting reuse for decades – and now retailers and manufacturers are increasingly offering resale programs for gently-used or returned merchandise, factory samples, and floor models. Online used-goods marketplaces such as eBay, Poshmark, and Facebook Marketplace other sources of reusable products.

    • Gift bags and decorative ribbons can be saved and reused.


  • Upcycle. A fun way to reuse items is to reimagine new purposes for them, with or without modifications. Upcycling is the practice of repurposing or reusing materials for new purposes. If you’re a crafter or enjoy inventing and tinkering, upcycling offers an outlet for creativity while saving resources along the way.

    • Make scratch pads and drawing paper from the blank sides of discarded mail and flyers.

    • Old calendars, magazines, maps, and newspapers can make colorful wrapping paper.

    • T-shirts can be transformed into shopping bags and quilts, old knee socks are perfect child-sized leg warmers, baggy shirts can become crop tops, old jeans make vintage-style denim skirts … the list of ways to transform garments goes on and on. There are 35 million search results for “upcycled clothes ideas” – which will you try?

    • Old clothing can also be cut up into squares of varying sizes and used as cleaning rags and counter wipes – a project that can also reduce your need for paper towels.

    • Worn-out pillows and bedding are often still comfy for pets. Check with a local animal shelter to see if they’ll take donations for upcycling.

    • Salvage yards aren’t just for used auto parts. Architectural salvage companies and community reuse yards are cropping up for repurposing old lumber, mirrors, and even window frames, and rescuing old furniture that may just need a little refurbishment before reuse.


Recycle. Not only can you reduce and reuse to avoid consuming new items; you can dispose of your waste differently to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills. Recycling collects and processes materials into new products, while composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter like food waste and lawn clippings into nutrients for soil.

total msw....jpg

Graphic: US EPA

As the graphic above shows, just over 60% of our current waste stream is either recyclable (paper goods + glass = 27.24%) or compostable (food waste + yard waste = 33.7%), without even counting trickier materials such as plastics or metals. What you can recycle and/or compost through your local trash service will depend on where you live – which you can supplement through a growing number of services available to recycle everything from plastic pens to running shoes.

  • Check the EPA’s tips for recycling, reuse, and donation for general guidelines.

  • To find out local recycling policies in your area, I Want to Be Recycled can point you to the right information.

  • Keep a small tub or bucket on your kitchen counter and collect food scraps as you cook. If your local garbage service won’t accept them, consider a home composting system – or connect with local gardening groups to see if they can help find a home for your compost.

  • If you have room in your freezer, you can store food scraps in a container inside to keep smells from spreading.

  • Check out Terracycle, which works with a number of brand-name manufacturers to recycle their products, for ways to recycle shoes, pens, razors, vacuums, and more.

  • Thrift stores aren’t trash dumps. If you want to recycle goods by donating them, only pass along items that are in decent condition. Shoes with holes in the soles, appliances with worn-out wiring, and ripped and stained clothing are better off being upcycled, dropped off for salvage, or thrown away altogether.

  • Check online for local recycling events for items such as electronics, mattresses, and household toxics like batteries and paint, which often are excluded from curbside recycling. Local schools or nonprofits sometimes host shredding events for safe destruction and recycling of old documents.

(Note: MSW is EPA-speak for municipal solid waste.)

bottom of page