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.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.