Green Your Junk: 16 Creative Ways to Upcycle Before You Recycle


The recyclers are out in force. Whether it’s using a local recycle centre or a council-provided green bin, it’s never been easier to get your household waste processed back into useful raw materials. But that takes energy – and why spend that energy when this “rubbish” can be turned into something useful in its present form?

Here are some of our suggestions for making the most of what you have already.

- “Grease the inside of a pan”, so many recipes start. The best way to do this is with butter-smeared greaseproof paper – the kind butter is wrapped in. So always have some handy by storing your used butter paper in the fridge (you can even freeze it if you’re overflowing).

- Big fan of bacon? (Organic, of course!) All that liquid fat running down the plughole will probably be slowly constricting the drain of your sink. A better option is to pour it into a jar, add unwanted food crumbs and a length of string, refrigerate and hey presto! – bird cake to hang from the washing line.

- There are plenty of things to do with old clothes that aren’t wearable any more, such as turn them into dusters or a quilt. But if you want to make the greenest use of them that you can, turn them into wrapping paper (or rather wrapping cloth), the Japanese way. A great way to say “sayonara” to all that expensive gift paper.

- Milkbottles. No, I know it’s obvious, but I have to say it – I’ve walked past recycling bins with milk bottles in them. It’s an easy trap to fall into: they’re glass bottles, so they can be recycled, so into the green bins they go. Except there’s a far more economical way to reuse them

- I’m not a big fan of paper towels, except in one respect – what’s in the middle. Those cardboard tubes make terrific cable tidies! (You can also achieve the same effect by slotting toilet roll carboard tubes together in series). Bundle your excess lengths of cable into them, and tie them with string. You can even label them by writing on the outside of the tube  – a boon if your home or office is overflowing with geeky cables and wires.

- Now here’s a phrase that needs a bit of redefining: food waste. Most of what we trim off our food can go into making stock that’s leaps and bounds ahead of anything that came out of a freeze-dried cube. And the remainder can feed the garden by becoming compost.

- There’s nothing more depressing than unpacking acres of plastic from a new purchase to get to the contents. So why not put all your unwanted newspapers, magazines and junk mail to good use instead of putting them in a recycling bag? Scrunched up, they make just as good packing material as those non-degrading foam chips or reams of bubble wrap.

- Speaking of junk mail – namely envelopes, letters and flyers – it’s a great source of paper for telephone notebooks or shopping lists. Chop up (into, say, A5 sized pages) and bind with a strong needle and some string. Or if you have a fire, a few pages twisted together make great firelighters. Let your imagination run wild – like these people.

- All brushes have a shelf-life – but there are many shelves to put them on. Take make-up brushes – fine and soft enough to dust your camera lens. I also have a couple of worn toothbrushes I’ve kept to clean the chain of my mountain-bike. Brushes are bristling with reuse potential. (Sorry).

- If your furniture is looking so chipped, scuffed and scratched that even the best varnish can’t do much for its appearance – why not spray paint it? Another advantage is that you can hide some pretty major repair work with a clever lick of paint. And if the results aren’t fit for the house, how about the garage or toolshed?

- Okay, I’m going to cheat a little. Because however much I like the idea of us all being able to turn our irrepairably dog-eared books into the kind of sculptural wizardry you can see at WebUrbanist, turning books into Art is a tall order (although here’s a good way to start). But what about using them to make artistic wall art, or even wallpaper? Book pages artificially yellowed (by leaving them in the sun, or very carefully baking them in an oven at a low temperature) make terrific faux-antique wall decoration.

- Oops – butterfingers. And now there’s the remains of a plate in a sad pile of swept-up pot fragments, ready for the trash. But are you planning to pot any plants in the near future? Line the base of each pot with some of these fragments – they let water drain out the hole in the base without carrying away the soil. Or have you ever wondered how it felt to be an ancient Roman? Your first mosaic awaits.

- I suspect that ironing board covers and oven mitts are pretty much the same heat-retardant material. That means if one falls to pieces, those pieces could be used to patch up the other – or, in the case of an ironing board cover, make the other, in the form of a lovely new pair of mitts.

- Used coffee grounds, in moderation, can do wonders for the garden by adding nitrogen to the soil.  Starbucks promote this through their eco-admirable “Grounds for your Garden” scheme (it’s a shame some of their other practices aren’t so benevolent). Or maybe try one of these alternate uses, courtesy of Casey Nicholson at HowToDoThings.

- Breakfast cereals almost always come in cardboard boxes containing a plastic cereal bag. Open it carefully – because it makes a terrific freezer/food bag. You can also grease it a little and use it  to line the bottom of baking dishes. And it’s just the right size to store butter paper (see above).

- Wine bottles are destined for the bottle bin…or are they?  Look at what those clever people at transglass did with theirs. You can do better? That’s the spirit!

That’s just us. What about your suggestions?

Image: Ecoshikis / Junk Mail Gems / id chicago / Robert S. Donovan / Xbeckie boox / mah_japan / macinate / Orin Zebest / jbloom / mhaw / uzvards / Anderson Mancini / sarae / Thalita Carvalho / AEJHarrison / vyusseem / INeedCoffee & CoffeeHero / green umbrella / tmray02.

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37 thoughts on “Green Your Junk: 16 Creative Ways to Upcycle Before You Recycle

  1. l use empty plastic bottles as door stops. First fill bottle with pretty plastic flowers or beads etc…. then fill with water. Put on the cap and you have a weighted door stop. l have also made mine into a pretty doll adding just a head and arms and a dress which covers the filled bottle.

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  3. Doh..why’d I buy so much crap to begin with?!

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  5. these projects look very easy to start…I look forward to the challenge

  6. Metal pans can rust so lining them with wax paper is a great idea–and even the plastic bags from cereal boxes will work. Lightly grease the pan, place plastic, then stack in the cabinet–not in the oven, guys. Great list, thank you.

  7. Most of these are very good ideas, but I’m on the same boat as posters Liz and Mike: the suggestion of using plastic cereal bags as baking liners stopped me in my tracks. Are you trying to ruin people’s cookware AND give them cancer? I hope no one is actually dumb enough to try this out.

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  10. Love these suggestions – but I wouldn’t put bacon fat out for birds – the salt is extremely bad for them. I also wouldn’t put the oven on just to ‘age’ paper..
    I upcycled a load of tee shirts by cutting them into strips (if you’re careful you can do it in a continuous spiral – just ignore the seams and carry on cutting) and crocheting them up into a huge chunky seat-cover. You could probably make a bag in the same manner.

  11. Cereal bags are mostly plastic now…if you line your baked good with this, you definitely will get some yummy toxins leeching into your food. Could be the ultimate in greenification–an earth with less humans is a healthier earth.

  12. Nobody sells a cardboard shredder! I need a shredder that can turn junk mail and packaging cardboard, even cloth and twigs and sticks, into mulch for my garden. I want to box the stuff, and use it in my urine collector, then mulch it into the garden along with the sawdust system I use now, but Alas! only paper shredders available! Wanna see a veggie garden really grow, use urine collection techniques from web, they really really work well!

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  14. The wax bags from cereal? Got Kids? – I use them to cover the work spaces when painting , and gluing.
    The boxes I save to make templates, and bookmarks, why buy chipboard when you get it free?

    I make ( or remake) things with all the waste in my home, soda cans, plastic bottles, paper.

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  16. Hi- -if you want reusable stuff, try parchment paper for baking and laying paper to dry on. It can be used time after time, and when it is done for these uses, can be used to cover the table when your child is doing something creative that involves dyes or paint or glue.

  17. Hey love some of these ideas you have displayed here, come visit our site for some of our ideas and submit any you have to us as well. We must share our ideas as every bit counts. What is today a raindrop tomorrow is a ocean !!

  18. I’ve just discovered garbage eating worms! sells them, along with the Can O Worms. They eat anything from the earth, i.e. fruits, veggies, paper, egg shells (no other dairy or meat). The worm castings (translated: poop) makes a wonder soil that holds 3x it’s weight in water. Plus the urine is collected and makes a liquid fertilizer! I’ve asked for one for my birthday. My husband thinks I’m nuts but it sound so much better than an average composting bin. It kills me everytime I put veggie scraps into the trash.

  19. What a great list. With 8 children, I cringe at the amount of wrapping paper I have use. I am now on the lookout for material to wrap next Christmas’ gifts in.

    Christy’s last blog post..Emergency Fund

  20. Being greener has awakened a craftiness I didn’t know I had!

  21. These ideas goes above and beyond the average “be green” list. I am so excited to reuse my coffee grounds and start a mosaic craft!

  22. Gotta love all the ways to upcycle/reuse blue jeans. Here are some of the projects I’ve used them for:
    Quilts and bedspreads (I donate lapsized quilts to a local homeless shelter)
    Use the legs to make yoga bags (I like jen’s idea of decorating w. stencil paints)
    Use the legs to make those hang-up bags to store plastic bags for reuse (not sure what you call them)
    Cut the scraps into strips and use them for rug hooking
    Tote bag

  23. I love the ideas on how to use old paper towel rolls! My dad has loads of wires that he could organize in this way, I also like the idea for the plastic bag inside the cereal box. My current cereal box is almost empty. I’m going to have to save the bag and use it for my next freezer item! :)

  24. i upcycle my clothes by using this stencil paint i found- google simply spray

  25. lovely ideas!

    i hang onto plastic cereal bags (and kettle chip empties) to collect the waste from the cat box. a clothespin keeps it secure until its ready for the dumpster, and then a bit of packaging tape seals if off for good.

    to pick up after my dog, i stockpile plastic bags from bread and veggies (fresh and frozen). now there’s no need to ever get plastic grocery bags, which usually end up with messy holes anyway.

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  29. So many “things” to rid ourselves with! I use egg cartons (recycled paper ones – of course!) for light weight packing materials and/or seed starter trays. Awesome list… keep it going!

  30. Great thought! I have learned a good thing today! Well keep going”¦hats off for your idea. Thank you.

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  32. Great lot of ideas! But seriously, DO NOT use your plastic cereal pouches to line baking trays! Some high end organic cereals use a wax paper/parchment for their bags that would work great for that, but a plastic bag will melt. . . likely destroying your baking dish and whatever you were trying to bake!!!


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