Thursday, September 3, 2009

8 Ways & Whys to Reuse Plastic

As many people know, reuse is a step up from recycling. In fact, reuse is the middle-man between reduce and recycle, and some would be surprised at how many opportunities for reuse there really are – once you start looking for them.

We’re not talking about simply covering a bottle in magazine cut-outs, sticking some flowers inside and voilà
- a masterpiece vase is born. There’s more to it.

Though there is always room for easy and fun projects, the reuse that we find most interesting is the kind you can’t tell is reused. There are some quality results that can be achieved, and just like we learned with T-shirts, many products have a lot of reuse potential.

These are our eight creative ways (with a why and how mixed in) to reuse plastic, in all of its forms:

1. Getting Every Drop: Plastic Bottles

These little puppies are everywhere. In fact, they are a valuable part of most U.S. communities’ recycling stream since PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) make up 96 percent of all plastic bottles produced in the U.S. Since 1977, when the first PET bottle was recycled, plastic bottle recycling has increased to more than 2.3 billion pounds annually.

An entry in the design contest  Concept Product of 2009, Sarah Turner's lamp constructed  from used drink bottles is an inspirtation to say the least. Photo:

An entry in the design contest Concept Product of 2009, Sarah Turner's lamp constructed from used drink bottles is an inspiration to say the least. Photo:

Today, more than 80 percent of communities collect plastic bottles. So, recycling this product is most likely a common practice for most. But if you shoot for more long-term reuse projects, it can definitely be worth it.

  • Lamp - Light up your home with some creative artistry. This example from designer Sarah Turner shows how much beauty and polish a reuse project can have.
  • Juicer - This simple reuse gadget is inventive, practical and just plain fun. Check out how Jeff Yeager did this one.
  • Purse - Still lugging around the cloth purses of yesteryear? Well, welcome to the 21st century with this fabulous reuse trick that is both impressive and practical. has done it again with this funky piece of fashion.
  • Everything and then some – Everyone stand back , we saved the best for last: These awesome design ideas cover everything from candle holders to piggy banks.

2. Thinking Twice: Plastic Bags

This plastic product is probably one of the easiest to reuse. Since a typical plastic carryout bag weighs approximately 4 to 5 grams and can hold up to 17 pounds of product – nearly 2,000 times its own weight – they can usually withstand a few rounds as a carrier. But what’s next?

If you do have access to one of the nationwide stores that offers plastic bag recycling, that’s a great option. But if you want to flex a little craft muscle, there are plenty of reuse projects for these bags.

  • Messenger bags – Though not that far off from its original use, a messenger or tote bag adds more sturdiness, durability and lifespan to these plastic sacks. Check out the below video by Bre Pettis for more details.
  • Yarn – On the same note as fusing plastic layers together (did you watch the video?), you can also get more out of plastic bags by turning them into yarn, and the creative sky’s the limit! Check out Helle Jorgensen blog for step-by-step details.
  • Art - As any artist, craftier or school project participant can tell you, art supplies can get pricey. Next time, turn towards your plastic bag drawer and pull at handfuls and handfuls of colorful supplies. As pointed out, Austin artist Virginia Fleck did just that, and they turned out great (if we may say so ourselves).

3. That’s For Real: Styrofoam

Styrofoam, the trademarked product name from the Dow Chemical Company, is the most common type of plastic #6. Because it is most often used in packaging to help insulate and keep delicate things from becoming damaged during transport, everybody deals with Styrofoam at some point. Recycling it, however, can end up being a bit of a challenge.

But the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers reported that 69 million pounds of EPS were recycled in 2008 alone. That’s an astonishing amount considering that EPS is 98 percent air. So, we know that it does happen, but we also know you can sometimes have it around the house and you’re not sure what the next step is.

Like plastic bags, you can turn around and use them as they were intended: to secure your items in storage or send a package or protect your fragile items. If you’ve wrapped and padded every glass item you can get your hands on, and you still have leftovers, here are some things to explore:

  • Crafts abound - Remember those Styrofoam molds that you used to make wreaths as a kid? Well, you could use that leftover Styrofoam that came with your new DVD player to do the same thing. To get your creative juices flowing, check out Dow Company’s Web site dedicated to Styrofoam product use.
  • Foundations - Along the same lines, utilize those Styrofoam pieces to keep center pieces upright, line planters or elevate trinkets on display. Think back to your school days and solar systems made of Styrofoam. You can stick pretty much anything in it. Go crazy!
  • Glue – This one isn’t a promise on our part, but is too intriguing to pass up: Check out tip #4 from this WikiHow page. Our minds are still a bit blown from this one.

4. Get the Dish: To-Go Containers

Single-use plastics such as the kind found in many to-go containers are often not recyclable and are usually discarded after one use. With today’s hefty portions in restaurants, to-go itemspile up. Before any reuse happens with these items, make sure to thoroughly rinse and sanitize so food residue doesn’t spoil your reuse efforts.

  • Classic reuse – Having a dinner party, a play date or any function where friends and food is involved? Saving your to-go container from last week’s take-out could provide a free carry-home for your friends and family. Plus, they can keep it, so there isn’t any Tupperware track-down missions the next time you visit their home.
  • Seed starters - As any seasoned grower or newbie green thumb knows, getting a garden to start can be the hardest part. That is where germination containers come in handy. They create mini-greenhouses for your seedlings. But why buy when your old to-go containers can work perfectly? Check out this how-to for more details.
  • Yarn holders – Though our office isn’t full of knitters, we definitely see the value in organization. And if you’ve ever had to untangle a ball of yarn, you instantly see the value in this one. Make traveling with yarn easier without spending a dime.

5. Perfect Possibilities: Packing Peanuts

The easiest reuse for this plastic is in another package you need to ship. You can also donate them to UPS or other shipping stores, which will gladly reuse the material. Not sure where to go? Call the automated, 24-hour Peanut Hot line at 800-828-2214 to find a site near your residence that will reuse them. Some more crafty reuse projects include:

These little puffs of air and plastic can jump start your next big reuse idea! Photo: Alex Flury, Wikimedia

These little puffs of air and plastic can jump-start your next big reuse idea! Photo: Alex Flury, Wikimedia

  • Bean bag chair re-stuffing – Though it may seem like a blast from the past, the bean bag chair is still alive and kicking. As anyone who has unknowingly plopped down in a not-so-stuffed one can tell you, they can need some refreshing every now and then. Pass on the “beans” and go for some packing peanuts.
  • Pet beds – Got an old pillow cover? Fill it will these little puffed treasures and make a cozy new bed for your pups or kitties.
  • Chandeliers - The complexity and skill level on this one can range, but when done to the level that Mollie Dash and her boyfriend Bryan did it, it’s quite a sight!
  • Curtains, strings and other things – Classic garland or newfangled strung curtains can easily be the fate of packing peanuts especially when a little paint and a dash of glitter is involved. Though this one is pretty self-explanatory, Danny Seo takes it beyond just packing peanuts and gives more tips on eco-decorating for the events and holidays in general.

6. Buttons, Nails and Thumbtacks (Oh My!): Plastic Food Containers

From yogurt cups to butter tubs (often created from plastic #5), these conveniently shaped little items can easily translate back into food storage containers or used for holding office, craft or home repair supplies. Anything else? Well, since you asked…

  • Car cup holder - Not sure how well this may translate to your vehicle, however it was worth sharing. This take on reuse is pretty darn inventive.
  • Planters plus more - We have all seen the random container-become-a-vase-or-planter trick, but this one has a little reuse duality to it. For all you knitters or crocheters out there, take those swatch samples and cover your plastic containers, creating both function and form in one foul sweep. Kristin Roach at Craft did just that, and we think it has some potential.
  • Too cute to not mention – While not the most necessary of items, Michelle at Her Cup Overfloweth breaks down how to create fuzzy little characters out of your old yogurt cups. This would be a perfect project for the kids or creative minds in your life. Don’t have a puppet theater of your own? Don’t let that stop you! Share this cuteness by making a series of these little guys and donating them to a local school, day care or library.

7. Doing the Math

You never know how much you can save practicing reuse until you try. Set a goal and see how close you can get! Photo:

You never know how much you can save practicing reuse until you try. Set a goal and see how close you can get! Photo:

The best part of reuse? You already own it! That means anything you do above and beyond its original use is money in the bank. Not so sure? Well let’s just sample a few of the above projects and get out the old calculator.

Remember, the point of reuse is to not go with the new, but the old. So, we’re going to assume that other items around the house were also utilized in your projects, in turn, having new expenses total a nice, fat zero.

  • $11 (four pack of new, 4 oz. food storage containers)
  • $14.86 (two bags of new packing peanuts)
  • $7.95 (a new seed starting tray)
  • $11.24 (a new car cup holder)
  • $16.95 (manual citrus juicer)
  • $12.94 (your own collection of fuzzy finger puppets)

    Total savings of $74.94

While that may not break the bank, it’s a nice chunk of change that could be used to invest in your organic garden, buy some monthly passes for public transit or maybe a few resources on more reuse and reduction ideas!

8. Hitting the Books

Caught the reuse bug? Well plastic is just the beginning. There are multiple ways to approach any trash problem, and reuse is just one of them. Check out the books and DVDs below to find out more ways to expand your use of what is often thrown away:

Homepage image courtesy of SOCIALisBETTER via Flickr.

Raquel Fagan

Raquel Fagan

Raquel Fagan is Executive Editor of