Even as a kid, Jen Lopez could improvise if she couldn’t get an item she needed. When she and her brother wanted to build a swing but didn’t have any rope, they braided their own out of baling twine — more commonly used on their family farm in East Texas to hold together bales of hay.
Add a piece of scrap wood for a seat, and they had their own homemade swing.
By not buying a brand new swing in that instance, and instead reusing materials they already had in a creative way, Lopez and her brother saved the resources that would’ve been used to manufacture the swing, package it and transport it.
Today, Lopez is one of the minds behind Clever Octopus Creative Reuse Center (CleverOctopus.org), one of several Utah organizations focused not only on recycling but also on reuse and reduction. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these two “R’s” are the best ways to save resources, protect the environment and, ultimately, save money. After all, waste that isn’t created in the first place never has to be recycled or buried in a landfill.
And that’s a good thing, seeing as how landfills do more to preserve refuse than make it disappear, said David Johnston with the Salt Lake City Waste and Recycling Division and the Utah Recycling Alliance. In landfills, garbage is buried so deep in the ground that air can’t reach it and break it down, Johnston said, making it so even a 50-year-old newspaper is as readable as the day it was printed.
In Utah specifically, reuse and reduction helps cut down on the pollution that gunks up our air, and provides more opportunities to support local business owners, makers and marginalized communities.
So, if your New Year’s resolutions include updating your lifestyle to be easier on the planet, these ideas can help you start some new green habits.
Shopping for new stuff online is so convenient that it makes it easy not to see what other options are available in the community, Johnston said. But you might be surprised at the specific products you can find locally for less environmental impact.
If a major appliance breaks, a front door needs replacing, or some other home improvement project looms, the knee-jerk action would be to go to Home Depot and buy everything new.
But ReStore, a program of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity, sells used and surplus building materials that would otherwise be sent to the landfill, for a fraction of what you’d spend at a large retailer.
For example, the cost of a new toilet starts at about $100, but a toilet at ReStore (clean and in working order) costs $20. Plus, since everything is donated, the store often carries discontinued and even vintage items that are hard to find, like a doorknob that matches a house built in the 1930s. And the stock is constantly turning over.
“If you don’t see what you like in our store, wait five minutes, and it’ll change,” said Ed Blake, CEO of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity.
Overall, Blake estimates the store keeps about 600 tons of refuse out of landfills every year — including paint. ReStore receives usable light-colored paint from the Salt Lake Valley Landfill’s household hazardous waste disposal site and sells it for $1 a gallon. Blake said it makes an economical base coat for projects — the colors are all mixed together, but it gets covered up anyway.
ReStore often donates furnishings to people who are transitioning out of homelessness and need things for their new apartment. And retail sales at ReStore support home-building efforts and neighborhood revitalization.
Also in the realm of making and fixing things is Clever Octopus (2250 S. West Temple) in South Salt Lake, a cross between a craft store and a thrift store that sells discounted art supplies, fabric, yarn and other bits and bobs that would end up in the landfill but still have plenty of use. Since everything is donated by businesses and individuals, the selection ranges from the more traditional, like pastels and sewing implements, to the more random, like rubber soles from a climbing shoe recycling company.
Since 2016, Clever Octopus has diverted 217,000 pounds of usable stuff from landfills, said Sheri Gibb, its executive director.
If you’re stuck on an artistic or practical project, Lopez said, Clever Octopus should be your first stop. “You’ll find new ideas of ways to approach a problem that you hadn’t considered before,” she said.
Numerous vintage sellers in the Salt Lake City area, on online platforms and in brick and mortar stores, make it easy to shop for clothing, accessories and knickknacks of all sorts without going into a larger retailer or mall. Joseph Thrift offers curated vintage clothes inside Atelier, at 341 Pierpont Ave. And Lavender Luck Shop sells secondhand clothing, “remade” clothes and witchy wares at 57 S. 600 East.
If you’re looking for a piece of jewelry that truly makes a statement, you can peruse Turned Treasure’s selection online, at the Tailor Cooperative (333 Pierpont Ave.) and inside Prohibition Utah (151 E. 6100 South, Murray).
For curated mid-century housewares, browse the shelves of Kissing Whiskey Vintage at one of the many pop-up events and markets that proprietor Kristen Wolfe has organized; she is on Instagram at @kissingwhiskeyvintage.
Fix it up
Lopez and her brother learned how to think outside the box from their parents, she said. Lopez’s mother grew up on the farm in Texas, over an hour away from a town with any real stores, so using items as long as possible was a part of life. Lopez’s father grew up in Cuba in the 1950s and early ‘60s, when replacement parts for American products became so scarce that Cubans had to make do with inventive hacks instead, using whatever they had on hand.
“My dad is like the king of creative reuse,” Lopez said.
The Spanish word “resolver” literally means “to solve,” but it takes on deeper meaning in Cuba with a rough translation of “to get by,” evoking “a particular national spirit of survival and working around the rules,” The Atlantic has observed.
At Clever Octopus, people can learn some of those skills for themselves at the organization’s Fix-It Clinics, hosted in partnership with the Utah Recycling Alliance.
At Fix-It Clinics, skilled volunteer coaches are available to help you repair the broken clock, ripped jeans or cracked teapot you’ve been meaning to fix but weren’t sure how. The next clinic is planned for March, depending on COVID-19 safety restrictions.
If you have a gaming console, car, appliance, camera or even an iPhone that needs fixing, the website iFixit.com offers thousands of free repair guides for just about every object you can think of.
Lopez said it’s good to try to buy things in the first place that you’d feel comfortable fixing yourself, in order to extend their life and usefulness. “Things that are repairable are made with straightforward materials, simple materials,” she said. “They can be fixed with hand tools, whether that’s a sewing machine, a needle and thread, a hammer and nail, [or a] screwdriver.”
And it’s OK if it’s obvious that the object has been repaired. Lopez said that when she repairs clothes, for example, she uses rainbow thread. She likes to make the patch stand out and look intentional, she said, so it looks celebrated. “That wear is part of the story,” she said.
Be a picky consumer
To reduce the amount of packaging you end up recycling or throwing out, be more choosy about the businesses you buy from.
Animalia (280 E. 900 South) is a low-waste shop in Salt Lake City that features a bulk refill bar, where people can fill their own bottles and jars with shampoo, liquid soap, hand sanitizer and other personal care and household products — even locally made kombucha.
For a list of current offerings, visit AnimaliaSLC.com or follow @animaliashopslc on Instagram. Handmade products from independent brands as well as alternatives to typical single-use items are also for sale.
If you’re searching for gifts that are the opposite of mass-produced, check out the cool creations of Logan Whitmore (on Instagram as @lassodaddywears), who makes bolo ties out of vintage toys, beads, jewelry and other scavenged trinkets. Kristal Welsh of Love Street Salvage makes and sells guitar straps out of upcycled vintage fabric and leather — in addition to selling vintage clothes. You can browse her guitar straps at Guitar Czar (5979 State St. in Murray) or in her Etsy store.
Instead of heading to a home improvement store to buy compost that’s packaged in plastic bags, go to the Salt Lake Valley Landfill, at 6030 W. California Ave. (1300 South).
Ever wonder what happens to the fallen leaves, dead branches and grass clippings you put in your yard waste bin? If you live in Salt Lake County, all that green waste is taken to the landfill and made into high-quality compost, which is available for the public to buy for $1 per 5-gallon bucket, or $15 by the yard. During the high-temperature composting process, any weed seeds and unwanted pathogens are killed off, and what’s left is dark, fluffy garden food.
Reuse, donate & recycle
In 2018, 42.8 million tons of food ended up in American landfills or combustion facilities, according to the EPA. And all that food turns into methane, a greenhouse gas. It might be easy to scrape a plate into the garbage, but doing that throws away more than food.
“You have to think about the labor that went into producing that food, you have to think about any of the various natural resources that went into it, right? The water that went into growing that food, or the energy that went into producing that food, the raw materials that went into it,” Johnston said. “… It’s incredibly impactful, all the food that we’re wasting.”
And when all else fails, donate it or recycle it. Donate lightly used clothing, furniture and housewares to thrift stores like Goodwill and Deseret Industries.
If you have items that can’t be put in a regular blue recycling bin, like cellphones, empty pens, burned-out string lights and cosmetics packaging, take them to a CHaRM (Collection of Hard to Recycle Materials) event, hosted by the Utah Recycling Alliance.
And if you need more information about recycling in your county, the handy map at UtahRecyclingAlliance.org can help.