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Finding new uses for old products turns 'trash' into resources, saving cash and raw materials

Carolyn Jabs can't abide trash. ''Get rid of it,'' she insists. But the former editorial assistant for a book-publishing company lived too many years in New York City on a marginal salary ever to throw away a used item until she ponders long and hard on how she might reuse it some other way.

''I couldn't afford to discard anything that might save me buying something else later - not if I wanted to eat well,'' she says.

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Take the ornate trivet that earns admiring comments from dinner guests at the Jabs home. It had started out, perhaps a century ago, as a decorative floor register, allowing warm air from the living area to rise up and moderate temperatures in the bedroom above. During some remodeling it was removed and headed for the town dump, when Ms. Jabs came across it. After a little sanding and some black spray paint, it became the talked-about trivet - just in time to accommodate the Thanksgiving turkey a few years back.

Along a wall in the upstate New York farmhouse she and husband David Zamachow now call home (he is manager of a Utica TV station) is a series of ''coat hooks'' that started out as working doorknobs. ''People hang all sorts of things on doorknobs, from shopping bags to umbrellas,'' says Ms. Jabs, ''so making coathooks out of them was a logical thing to do.''

Then there is the Pennsylvania man who told Ms. Jabs how he raised the average temperature in his basement 12 degrees F. with the help of discarded cups made of styrofoam (an excellent insulator). Each day he would bring home the day's collection of discarded cups from his office and snip them into small pieces while watching TV. The resulting ''insulation'' was dropped into the hollow-block walls. This slowed down heat transfer to such a degree that the waste heat from the burner (governed by the needs of the living quarters upstairs) kept the basement considerably warmer.

This latter example of recycling would be considered extreme by most standards, and Ms. Jabs doubts that she would have the patience to follow through with such a program. No two dedicated recyclers will agree totally on what is reusable and what is trash apparently. But it illustrates the point she currently is crusading about: There is almost nothing used that cannot be reused in some other way. The moment you conceive of another practical use for something you are about to throw away, in that moment what was trash becomes a resource.

The long-term effects of such imagination and self-discipline are cash savings for the individual, savings for towns running out of space in which to bury the growing volume of trash, and a reduction in the use of raw materials by the nation as a whole.

When she lived in Manhattan, Ms. Jabs edited a periodical called ''Wisdom's Child, or How to Live in New York City on Less than $50,000.'' Its theme: resourcefulness - making the most of what you already have. That experience, plus four years of subsequent research, have resulted in a recently published book, ''RE/USES: 2,133 Ways to Recycle and Reuse the Things You Ordinarily Throw Away'' (New York: Crown Publishers). It is a compendium of suggestions on what can be done with everything from old aluminum (how about a reflector oven) and used flash cubes (they can be turned into Christmas-tree ornaments) to nonwriting pens (electric current testers, among several ideas) and old zippers, which can readily regain their ''zip'' through a few simple repairs.

The person who first cut off the broken end of a ladder and then suspended the shortened version from the kitchen ceiling started something. Now some people buy new ladders to turn them into avant-garde holders for pots and pans. The rims of old bicycle wheels can be similarly used in the kitchen.

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Though the book contains more than 2,000 suggestions, it does little more than scratch the surface of potential reuse ideas. The aim of the book is to stimulate still further creativity.

''Give a person a used item and ask him to think up another use for it and he might well have trouble doing so,'' says Ms. Jabs. ''But give him the item and some ideas for reusing it, and he's likely to think up still more.'' When it comes to finding a new use for an old product, one good idea frequently triggers another, she says.

Ms. Jabs has some advice for the would-be ''reuser'':

* Don't try to reuse everything, at least not right away. You'll be overwhelmed by the project. Start small and let a more comprehensive program develop naturally.

* Don't be imprisoned by what an item was. Think of what it can become - a trivet, a coathanger, or whatever your imagination is capable of.

* Don't buy new if some already-used product can be turned into the item you want. As she points out, you would be wasting money buying a household funnel when a plastic bottle with the bottom cut off and the cap removed would work just as well.

* When buying something new, think of a possible end use. This is particularly important when it comes to packaging. ''The average American spends be used again in some other way, then we get much more for our dollar,'' she reasons.

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