For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Look at some of your regular household items differently! Here are ways to repurpose, reuse, and upcycle old items, with everything from paper towel tubes to toothbrushes and plastic lids.
There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990’s about recycling. It shows a long stream of people trudging up the many switchbacks of a flaming ramp to deposit items in an endless string of boxes labeled tea bags, wadded up masking tape, broken ballpoint pens, not blue paper, etc. The cartoon is captioned “Recycling in Hell.”
That’s how I feel about most artsy-crafty projects that “repurpose” household discards. While I love seeing those chandeliers made from bicycle wheels, jewelry from aluminum cans and bicycle chains, shoulder bags and vests from old blue jeans, and chicken coops from used pallets, I shudder at the thought of taking on the work myself.
And yet I do find myself saving or scrounging stuff that has immediate usefulness and doesn’t require a sewing machine, carpentry (or any other) tools, paint, or appliqués. I manage to stay on the sane side of hoarding, and the practice keeps my creative juices flowing and my trash volume low. Occasionally, it may save a little money.
I use these as cutworm collars for protecting tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage-family transplants during their first couple of weeks in the garden. The tubes gradually soften and rot into the soil. I also employ the paperboard tubes for cable and cord storing.
Upcycling Rubber Bands
I save all of the fat rubber bands that our rural postman uses to bundle letters to use for all of the usual purposes. I also wrap them around the ends of clothes hangers to prevent the susceptible garments from slipping off the hanger. When painting or varnishing, I pull a rubber band top to bottom across the can once the lid is open. The stretched rubber across the top of the can makes a nifty paintbrush wiper to keep paint from dripping off the end of the brush.
Toothbrushes make ideal scrubbers for hard-to-reach-places. They allow me to clean in and around sink fixtures and the hinges on the toilet seat, in and around the keys on my computer keyboard, into all sorts of corners, and into the smaller parts of my bicycle (including the chain). They scrub mud (and worse) from the treads of athletic shoes and boots.
Making Laundry Detergent from Soap Slivers
I used to collect these in an old cotton sock to hang in the shower and use as a soap-on-a-rope scrubber. Now I store them in the old sock and mash them together until I accumulate a soap ball about the size of one full bar of soap. Then I grate the soap ball and stir the gratings into a mixture of one cup each of baking soda, washing soda, and borax.
Voilà! Powdered laundry detergent. I store it in a 1-quart recycled yogurt container and use a couple of tablespoons per load of laundry. This product is faster to make and easier to store than the liquid detergent I had been making (and still occasionally do).
Re-purposing Plastic Lids
I use various sizes of lids as coasters and to catch drips under houseplants and opened jars of honey. Cut a slit in one and slip a paintbrush handle through to prevent paint drips from falling onto your shirtsleeves.
Upcycling Tops from Parmesan Cheese Containers
Amazingly, these tops fit onto narrow-neck glass mason jars, which I use to store my homegrown herbs. I also use an empty parmesan container for shaking flour onto my work surface when rolling a piecrust or shaping bread dough.
Reusing Zippered Plastic Bags
As long as it still holds water when zipped, I never throw a zipper bag away. I wash them out, dry them on my laundry rack, and reuse them again and again. I freeze a lot of fruit and vegetables each summer and find that I can get years of reuse out of a single bag. As for labeling, I just cross out last year’s label with my magic marker and write a new one.