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Reuse revisited – garbage never looked so good

August 19, 2010

A preview of my Eat Real Booth!

I’ve been thinking about re-use of materials a lot lately because I’m attempting to make my urban homesteading General Store Booth at Eat Real Fest out of 90% re-purposed materials.  It’s a challenge, but a fun one!

It’s sad, really, that when most Americans think of “Conservation” they think of crazy hippies out in California hugging trees and waxing philosophical about the loss of Mother Earth’s beautiful creatures.  Conservation touches all of us. Every time we leave our home we’re faced with decisions that involve conservation – bike, walk or drive? Paper or plastic? Milk in a carton or in a plastic jug? Biodegradable soap or my regular favorite?

No one is perfect and god and my brother will be the first to tell you I’m no different. I do make efforts, though, to conserve. We all know we should try to take a shopping bag to the market and recycle, but what about re-use?  Take a look at my ideas below and please feel free to share your own!

Plastic bags. There’s no denying that there’s a learning curve in remembering to bring your shopping bags to the store.  While you get the hang of it, don’t just throw those pesky plastic bags away.  Some stores will take them back and recycle them.  If your store doesn’t do this, ask them.  Otherwise, I used to take my extras to a nearby dog-park where I knew people could use them to “scoop”.  Don’t live near a dog park?  Offer them to your neighbor with dogs.  Dog owners will be grateful!

A tomato seedling gets its start in a milk carton

Paper coffee cups and waxy cartons. Yes, we should all probably invest in a re-useable coffee mug.  However, if you just can’t remember to bring it or bring yourself to carry it, at least re-use your waste.  These cups and cartons can be recycled by city programs but they will take a very long time to break down in your home compost pile.  Why not give them a jump start?  I use paper coffee cups and waxed milk/ice cream cartons to plant seeds in.  If you poke holes throughout for drainage then start your seeds in the container indoors before it’s okay to put them outside, the seedlings not only get a head start on the growing season, but they also have a little protection from slugs and snails once you plant them.  You can cut the bottom out of the cup and place it directly in the soil when you’re ready, leaving a lip a few inches above the soil to deter critters.

Coffee cup lid makes a handy hanging label

Coffee cup lids. These make handy plant labels and they already have a hole in them to string twine through.  Otherwise, I believe they’re recyclable!

Label cut from a plastic milk jug

Plastic milk cartons. I read somewhere that you could cut these up and write on them to make plant labels.  It’s kind of tedious work and it takes some strong scissors, but if you’re inclined to try, they do make useful and durable tags which you can write on in black sharpie.  I used a hole punch to make a hole for hanging it from my tomato cage.  The nice thing about these is that you can tie them up near the top of the plant so that when all your other plant markers are buried under foliage on the ground, you can still access these.

Compost! The best way to re-use “garbage” is to recycle it back into your yard as fertilizer.  Cities like San Francisco and Oakland have made this easy (and mandatory!) by provided nice green bins for us all to use.  People who live in other areas may need to get more creative.  If you have any outdoor space at all, you might consider burying a small pile of compost in the dirt – covering it with a layer of dirt will keep the animals out.  It’s a common misconception  that if something is biodegradable it’s okay to throw in in the garbage because it will degrade.  Materials need air and water in order to decompose and, unfortunately, that garbage picked up by your local collectors is compacted to the point where there is neither air nor moisture.  Digging in landfills has uprooted newspapers from the 1920’s in perfectly readable condition because of this compaction!  Please compost and let nature get rid of some of our waste.  Gardeners in particular will love this re-use of wasted materials as compost is the best fertilizer out there – and it’s free!

This chicken container from Boston Market makes a perfect greenhouse

Random plastic food containers. A friend brought Boston Market chicken to a party and while my other friends might have thought my silence meant quiet judgment I was actually working out a way to re-use that nifty container the chicken came in.  Turns out, it’s the perfect seed-starter for late winter/early spring.  The bottom is a shallow black dish and the top is a clear dome with vents.  I put little seed-starting coir containers in the bottom, added a little water and a seed and voila!  The black attracted heat to warm the little seeds and the vented dome made a perfect greenhouse.  This is not to say you should start patronizing Boston Market, but rather to encourage you to think about how something could be re-used if it does find its way into your home.

The one plant that survived the styrofoam

Styrofoam cups. I’ve had some success with this but way more failures.  I tried re-using styrofoam cups to plant seeds in but none of the seedlings thrived.  I’m not going to make any assumptions about what the styrofoam could be leaching out into the soil, but I do know the vast majority of seeds planted in this material died.  Here’s a photo of one plant that is still doing well in one.  It was a cutting rather than a seedling.

Vinegar bottle filled with water to regulate temperature

Vinegar or other large jugs. No, not those kind of “large jugs”, get your mind out of the gutter.  Jugs like the vinegar one in the photo are excellent for creating a controlled temperature environment, particularly if you paint them black (which I didn’t).  Especially in the early spring your plants may be struggling to collect enough warmth to get a good start.  Fill these jugs with water and they collect heat from the sun during the day to radiate at night when there’s still a chance of frost.  I’ve heard the ancient Roman used this technique.

There are a million ways I’m sure you can think to re-use items in your home.  Feel free to share your ideas below in the comments!

Don’t miss the booth at Eat Real Fest on August 27-29th.  It’s coming together quite nicely and you might be as amazed as we were by what we could do with spare items we found lying around.

www.eatrealfest.com

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  • I try to never use or receive plastic bags from the grocery store, but Safeway and others outside of SF use them exclusively (you don’t even get a paper option!), and I generally only shop there infrequently, but they start to pile up. My latest apartment has this awesome container from simplehuman installed in my kitchen closet which works wonders with not only containing them, but also making them easy to grab just one when you want it. They have a couple types, and I have the wall mounted version.

    http://www.simplehuman.com/products/grocery-bag-holders/index.html

    Reply
    • Don’t I know it! The San Leandro Safeway recognizes me by now as that girl who always makes a big deal out of stuffing groceries in her backpack because all they have is plastic. For a double-whammy on your bag holder, my mom cut a circle out of a plastic gallon milk jug and put used plastic bags in it. Same concept and it worked really well – just didn’t look as cute! :-) Of course, my mom could make anything look cute -she probably painted birds on it or something.

      Reply
  • Way back when, I had a large garden and used newspapers to keep weeds out from between the rows. Just a sheet or two, weighed down with a bit of soil and by the end of the season, what’s left is in tatters and can be turned under to aerate the heavy soil we had. It works on a small scale just as well.
    That was back before we used the word ‘Conservation’ as it is used now. To us, conservation meant not spending money!
    Also, Grandma Hollan used to tie aluminnum pie pans to swing and flash in the apple trees to keep the birds and squirrels from snatching the tender fruit.

    Reply
    • Oh nice! There are people charging lots of money for permaculture classes where they tell you to layer cardboard or newspaper to choke out weeds and then plant on top of. You should be charging for this advice MommyPants. I also saw an article about a little girl who uses burlap bags on her garden borders. When the weeds grow through, she lifts it and turns it over to start anew! Brilliant!

      Reply
  • Though I also try to bring my own reusable bags to the store whenever possible, there are a few that sneak through and make it back home with me. I reuse them as garbage bags for my bathroom wastebaskets, and for storage, I stuff them in an empty tissue box until ready for use.

    Reply
  • Grandma H. used old stockings to tie up her floppy plants. Be they tomatoes, beans, peonies, whatever. They are soft, and easy to tie into a loose knot.
    She always had the bottom half of a wax milk carton in the kitchen drawer full of rubber bands. She also kept several cigar boxes full of odds and ends like ribbon, pretty bits of paper or fabric, decorative buttons and the like. All of her young-uns dug through these to make the most envied shoe box Valentine boxes for elementary school. Remember Nik? She was a genuis at repurposing. Her saving, re-using and repurposing everything likely came from living through the Great Depression, and here we are now,learning the lessons her generation took for granted.

    Reply