It’s for you. I dug it out of the trash …

Right now, we’re living in a reuse renaissance — and I, for one, am thrilled. I love the idea of reusing stuff that would’ve ended up in the trash. I love that you basically have to know how to knit a clutch purse out of gum wrappers and dog hair to sign into Pinterest these days. I love that reusing stuff is so hot right now that we’ve coined an entirely new word — upcycling — because “reusing” just cannot encompass the awesomeness of what we’re doing with all this garbage.

But here’s the thing: Not all of these reuse tactics work for me. One reason is what I’ll call the Law of Limited Utility. Repurposing a few old bread-closure tabs as cord organizers — great! Now what am I supposed to do with the other 450 of these things that are cluttering the drawer? My second reason is what we shall refer to as the Law of Limited Skill. Tote bags woven from chocolate bar wrappers are creative and cool, but I just don’t have the expertise right now to make those intimidating projects happen. And then there’s the third reason: the Law of the Really Ugly Upcycle. Look, I do think it’s amazing that you made a vest out of 227 disposable plastic forks, but hey, that’s just not my style. No offense.

vastateparksstaff… I was trying to make it look like this.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’m already a basic reuser — what’s that, old sock? You want to come out of retirement as a cleaning rag? — but I know I can up my game. There must be more that I can do to not only divert my landfill fodder, but also do so in a way that makes sense for me. So last week, I headed to a community workshop on reusing commonly tossed items at my neighborhood library (you read that right — it’s Urban Self-Reliance Month in Seattle!). There, we broke into groups, were handed a bag of trash, and asked to brainstorm as many new uses for the items as possible.

Some were easy. Newspaper? Compost bin liner! Pet-cage liner! Worm bedding! Cork? Pincushion! Door stopper! DIY-chic bulletin board! Others were a little tougher. Floss box? Um … tiny pill box? Spice container? Empty bag of chips? “I used to grow, um, certain plants indoors,” said one shifty-eyed member of my group. “The shiny stuff on the inside is really good for reflecting light from a grow lamp.” After the brainstorming session, we swapped ideas with other groups and heard pro-grade inspiration from the facilitator. (See the end of the post for a full list of workshop-approved ideas I’d actually use.)

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

find ericSometimes upcycling requires a certain lack of shame.

I went home energized and vowed to inspect my castoffs to rescue everything that could serve another purpose. But this couldn’t be a fork-vest situation, I told myself as I stood poised over the trash. And I couldn’t fool myself into thinking I would actually try to sew a wallet out of a cat food bag. These solutions would have to be legit for me.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I dove in. (Luckily, I’m an old hat at garbage-picking.) And after separating the wheat from the chaff (a dirty plastic wrapper that once held frozen cod, a shipping label, and a few plastic bags I’d carelessly ripped into uselessness went back into the bin), I had resurrected 11 whole items I thought I could revive. The haul: three cereal bags, one cat food bag,  one meshy bag that once held garlic, one foil-lined coffee bag, one foil-lined cat treat bag, three miscellaneous food bags (origin: trail mix and chard), and a handful of Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Immediate lesson: Wow, we really should buy more in bulk and less in bags. But what to do with the refuse I already had on hand? I have a few ideas …

Cat treat bag + coffee bag

Get this: Turned inside out, cat treat bags (and bags that hold chips or other snacks) actually make pretty impressive gift bags. Even better, foil-lined coffee bags can morph into curly ribbon decorations. Now there’s a craft I can actually handle, with an end result I can actually use (you guys, I can work scissors).

Instead of hot glue, I bound the curly strands with the coffee bag’s own moldable plastic closure strip; I used an old elastic hair tie to both close the gift bag and attach the ribbon to it. Extra bonus: Gift smells like coffee. (If you don’t like this effect, you can always wash the bag more thoroughly than I did.)

Packing peanuts

urbanwoodswalkerPut it on your car keys as a handy reminder not to drink and drive!

I already save bubble wrap sent to me to reuse for my own fragile shipping needs (homemade jam Christmas packages, here we come). So why did I let these peanuts slip through my fingers? Never again. I collected them in one of the cereal bags — double points! — and stashed it in a drawer for later.

Cereal bags

The remaining burly plastic box liner (the other is an EcoPack bag that once held puffed millet) is tough enough for myriad uses. Crumpled up, it can serve as additional packing material; it’s also a handy prep surface for chopping fruits and veggies, freezing food, and dropping freshly baked cookies or candies (think wax paper). My favorite idea: using it as a sandwich bag. I eat lunch at home, so I asked my boyfriend, Ted, to pack his midday meal in one. “You already make me reuse Ziplocs,” he grumbled, but agreed to pack a sandwich anyway.

And that other bag? Cat poop, baby. With Seattle’s plastic bag ban firmly in place, I’ve been scraping to find litter box receptacles. No longer.

Garlic bag

Surprisingly easy: Plastic meshy bags that hold onions, garlic, and the like can be scrunched into dish scrubbers. And I even needed one of those!

Cat food bag

Big, heavy-duty plastic bags that seal are high-value items: In my research, I found references to using them to store kindling, carry water (to offer to the pet on walks, I imagine), and hold toilet plungers. And of course, you can always create a new tote bag. Wait, that requires sewing? Ah! Run away!

I came up with a new use all on my own. With its slim profile yet moderate storage capacity, Luna’s old food bag is perfect for corralling some loose winter hats and gloves on a stuffed closet shelf.

Miscellaneous bags

Jen MeisterYou can make some really nice bags out of old sheets if you actually know how to sew.

Two words: cat poop.

What about you? Do you have tried-and-true reuse tricks? Have you ever picked through your garbage (unless you’re … chicken) to learn how to improve your tossing habits? Share your secrets! And in return, I’ll leave you with these pro tips from my workshop.

  • Chopsticks: plant brace, corner cleaner, food leveler
  • Bread bag tab: hold the end of the tape roll
  • CD case: recipe holder-upper
  • Twist ties: holiday light- or ornament-attacher
  • Floss box: pin holder, mini sewing kit
  • Toothbrush: spot cleaner, corn cob de-silker
  • Ice cube tray: maker of aloe vera burn cubes or lemon/lime-flavored ice
  • Pretty much anything: jewelry holder or display gizmo