PreCycling: Saving Money While Reducing Waste

Every week, the average American generates around 23 lbs of waste. A large portion of that comes from the packaging of products we buy. Research suggests that $1 out of every $11 that Americans spend on food goes toward packaging. Here are some staggering facts about packaging:

  • Americans use about 190 pounds of plastic per year each. About 60 pounds of that is packaging that is discarded upon opening.
  • Nearly 30% of all plastics produced are for packaging.
  • Americans empty approximately 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
  • More than 50% of all plastics discarded per year are from packaging


Precycling, or buying products with less packaging, saves you money while reducing the amount of waste that ends up in our solid waste stream. The savings can be as great as 50% when you purchase products with less packaging because you're actually spending more money for the product and less on the packaging. By shopping smart and choosing your products carefully, you can lessen your impact on the environment by reducing waste at the source.

  • Look for products packaged with the least amount of waste.
  • When practical, buy things in bulk.
  • Avoid disposable, single-use items like razors, diapers and lighters
  • Buy concentrates
  • Buy long-lasting products that can be repaired
  • At the checkout or drive through, don't take a bag if you don't need one
  • Buy non-hazardous products
  • Avoid aerosol cans
  • Buy fresh vegetables like carrots, onions and peppers loose-not in bags.
  • Avoid "squeezable" sauce and condiment containers. They are often made up of different types of layers of plastic that cannot be recycled.
  • Use sponges instead of paper towels
  • Storing bulk or large amounts of food in reusable airtight containers allows easy access and extends shelf life. Refrigeration and freezing can extend shelf life even further. Small reusable containers can be used to pack food in single servings for kid's lunches.

Examples of reducing packaging for a child's lunch:

  • cloth or nylon lunch bag, or lunch box
  • plastic beverage bottle with lid
  • sandwich keeper
  • small container for raisins, nuts, etc.
  • medium container for chips, crackers, potato salad, etc.
  • washable cloth napkin

Tips for Reusing

  • use cloth bags for shopping
  • reuse items such as bags, jars and plastic tubs
  • pack you lunch in reusable food containers
  • use rechargeable batteries
  • repair and maintain items instead of replacing them
  • use refillable, pump-spray bottles
  • buy milk in refillable bottles
  • write on the backsides of paper and envelops before recycling, shred newspaper and use it for mulch in the garden, pass along magazines.
  • donate reusable items to community groups, shelters, schools or nursing homes.


  • Buy readily recyclable products and then participate in local recycling programs. Glass, aluminum, and newspapers are collected in most communities.
  • Buy Recycled: The recycling loop is not closed until we purchase products made from recycled materials.
  • Look for items made from recycled materials or items that come in recycled packaging. If the packaging is made from recycled cardboard, it will be gray on the inside.

Although there are times when greater packaging is necessary, like in the case of health or shelf life reasons, in too many cases it's excessive. The best way to reduce waste is by shopping smart to reduce it at the source.


About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at

August 29, 20050 found this helpful

I have a co-worker who is long-time e-Bay seller. I shred all my 'junk mail' for him as he is able to use it for cushioning in the packages he mails out to e-Bay buyers! Recycling lives!!!

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April 20, 20070 found this helpful

I've been trying to use my own cloth bags when shopping. The other day I bought something at a clothing store and gave the clerk my bag. She put the item in one of her plastic bags and placed it inside my bag! I took the item out of her bag and left it on the counter. Wonder if she reused it or threw it away? Many stores give you a 5 cent discount for using your own bag. Not much but a start!


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April 23, 20070 found this helpful

In the Republic of South Africa, customers are charged for bags when shopping for groceries. We buy bags for R5 or so at the grocery shops and re-use them over and over again. The clothing shops provide plastic bags free. I think it is to protect them from claims resulting from customers' bags maybe not being completely clean on the inside.

I always use my own bags when grocery shopping and I keep a lapsak (Afrikaans for material bag) folded in my handbag for those just in case times. It takes up very little room and has come in very handy.

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September 6, 20070 found this helpful

There are many sites that you can go to and you can create your own reusable bags FROM plastic bags. Do a search one day, you'll be amazed how many people are doing it.

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