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6 simple ways to upcycle everyday household items you thought were trash

I’m a little crunchy granola. I’m the one who line dries all our clothes, and yes, my husband’s only birthday gift to me this year was a thermostat I could control remotely that would track our energy use and help us reduce it. And I liked it. While the environment is definitely a concern in a lot of the choices I make, reusing items and finding ways to be smarter in what I buy is also less expensive, which means I can do more fun things in my life.

The other day, the wee ones and I were shopping at Walmart for some new shoes for Mister Man – whose feet grew again! – and we walked past the battery area in the back of the store. Though we don’t go through batteries the way we did when the wee ones were young with all the toys that were battery operated (much as I tried to limit those), we do still periodically need to replace a battery or two, and Little Miss reminded me that our tv flipper wasn’t working anymore and we were down to using a backup solution.

As we headed over to pick up some new AAs , she pointed out a new battery by Energizer that she wanted me to buy because the lessons I’m teaching her in reusing and recycling are apparently taking root, and it was important to her that we buy a battery that is recycled. And when I took a look, yes, the new Energizer EcoAdvanced batteries (in AA and AAA!) are in fact partly made from recycled batteries and materials. Add to the fact that it’s Energizer’s longest lasting alkaline battery ever, and of course this is the one we had to pick up to be consistent.

Energizer EcoAdvance batteries at Walmart

When we got home and switched out the batteries in our flipper with new ones, Little Miss was so proud that we were sticking to what we do. The whole way home she talked about different ways we make sure to be kind to the environment and upcycle. I didn’t think much about it at first, but she came up with a great list of different ways to upcycle that we do, sometimes without even thinking.

Changing batteries in the flipper

There are obvious ones like reusing paper that comes home from school. So often, homework is only on one side of a page or a teacher uses only one side for notes or information. It’s so easy to flip that paper over and use it for scratch paper, especially now that Mister Man is in a much harder level of math where he has to do a lot of steps when calculating the answers to his problems.

But there are also plenty of things that aren’t quite as obvious. You have items in your home that you think have reached the end of their useful life, but as soon as you repurpose them, you find that there are so many ways to upcycle and not only do you not have to buy something new, but you prevented something from going directly to a landfill.

Six Simple Ways to Upcycle

Use envelopes from bills. I pay pretty much every bill I receive online. In fact, the only bill I don’t pay online is my village water bill (they charge $3 for that!), and I simply drop it off at the village hall on my way to or from school when it’s due. While many companies have recognized that I always pay online and no longer include a return envelope with my statement, most companies still include that extra envelope in their mailings.

Lots of bills go to recycling

Instead of including that in my recycling pile, I pull out all those blank envelopes and set them aside in my office. Whenever I have a permission slip or something I need to return to school, I use that envelope instead of a brand new envelope. It’s so simple to do, and it also means I’m not constantly on the hunt for my box of envelopes that I really only use on the very rare occasion when I mail a letter.

Using a recycled envelope for school notes

Socks as dry erase markers. One of the ways to upcycle is to find others who may need or want something you no longer do, and teachers at our school fall into that category. I have a huge bucket of unmatched socks. I do my best to hold onto the singletons and periodically sort through them to see if I can find any matches – and I recently matched up 22 pairs! – but at some point, it’s time to give up on the idea of ever finding the mate to some of these socks.

Big bucket of singleton socks

Fortunately, the teachers at the wee ones’ school use whiteboards with the students to work on problems at their desks. Rather than purchasing erasers for each of the whiteboards, which inevitably get lost, they use old socks. The socks work great to clean the dry erase boards, and it saves so much money that the teachers can use on other school needs. They’re always grateful for donations of any socks since yes, even socks at school seem to disappear somehow.

Use socks as whiteboard erasers

Tissue boxes as trash receptacles. With the wee ones in activities many days after school, they are regularly eating snacks in the backseat as we go straight from school to gymnastics or tae kwon do. Being children, the trash from their snacks tends to end up all over the back seat of my car. At one point, I implemented an every Wednesday clean the back seat of my car program. It was depressing to see what gathered there over the course of a single week.

Garbage everywhere in the backseat

Part of the problem is that I didn’t have a great place for them to put their garbage. I relied on them to – *gasp* – take it with them when they got out of my car and throw it away. I still haven’t figured out why this is such a challenge, but since we go through tissues like water, I now have a new solution. Instead of tossing the tissue boxes when they’re empty, I hang onto them.

Use empty tissue boxes as garbage cans

They now go into the back seat of my car where the wee ones use it as a little garbage can. I love that the small opening on the top means I don’t have to worry about the garbage spilling out of it, and once it’s filled, it simply gets tossed and I put a new one in. They love how easy it is (and that the Wednesday cleaning now takes way less time), and I love that I don’t have to feel as embarrassed when anyone opens the door to my car.

Tissue boxes make great disposable trash cans

Creating storage containers. Mister Man loves his LEGOs. I love that he loves his LEGOs. I don’t love that he love his LEGOs all over the basement floor, particularly in front  of the door to the laundry room. No matter how many shelves I have for him or how many times I ask him to pick things up, my floor inevitably ends up a battle scene.

MEss of LEGOs

Part of the problem is that Mister Man builds and rebuilds his LEGOs in all sorts of different formats. And when he takes things apart, he needs to know where that particular piece is to reuse it later. Later may be two weeks from now, but he still needs to be able to find it. The kid has a mind like a steel trap and knows every color and shape of pretty much every piece he owns. I finally got smart and started saving the containers my protein powder come in. I remove the label and each color has its own container now, labeled with the correct color.

LAbel canisters by color to sort legos

When he’s looking for a piece that’s black, he can dump out the black bucket, find the piece, and put the rest away (or at least, that’s how it works in my head – we’re still working on reality).

Easy to find the legos you need when they're sorted by colors

Even if it isn’t perfect, he’s so much happier, and we’re both enjoying this organizing system. Though we’re using it for LEGOs, you could do the same thing with containers you have around your house to hold anything from toys to markers to buttons and more.

Baby hangars work for big kids, too. I mentioned earlier that this whole thought process began when we headed to Walmart to buy Mister Man some new shoes since he’d grown again. It’s hard for me to face it sometimes, but the wee ones are growing up. Not only are their shoes bigger, but their clothes are, too. Those tiny little hangars that used to hold their outfits? Well, they don’t work so well anymore. Little Miss especially still tries to use them, but inevitably, that jersey doesn’t stay hung up.

Lots of bills go to recycling

It ends up on the floor of her closet, which means she usually ignores it and doesn’t wear it or puts it in the dirty clothes hamper before she’s even worn it.

Rather than simply throwing away all those tiny hangars that don’t hold their clothes anymore, I realized that we could still use them, just differently. Though shirts fall off them easily, they still work great to hang up pants. I tried it, and even my pants fit on these hangars (though my husband’s don’t). Rather than throwing them all away and buying all new hangars, I only had to purchase new hangars to fit their shirts. Their pants still work perfectly with these smaller hangars – so don’t throw yours away just because your kids are getting big!

Use old baby hangars as pants hangars

Reusing containers and jars. Growing up, my mom used to always reuse takeout containers and margarine containers to hold leftovers. Though I’m primarily a glass or metal kind of storage container girl, I do still save those containers to send leftovers home with friends. It’s great that neither of us has to worry about remembering to return a container, especially for that one friend who I joke still has one of my favorite small glass containers at her house somewhere.

Empty pickeled beet jar

I do reuse glass jars all the time, however. When I make syrups or preserves or even the pineapple curd I recently made, I store them in glass jars. Rather than buying new glass jars, I save all my pickle and olive jars. My mustard jars aren’t trash, nor are sundried tomato jars. They all get thoroughly washed out and their labels removed. And then I reuse them for everything and anything from spaghetti sauce to my homemade mole sauce. Buying glass jars isn’t cheap, and this is one of those ways to upcycle that saves me tons of money and is friendly to the environment at the same time.

Reusing empty beet jars to store food

If I sat down to think about it, I’m sure I could come up with several more ways to upcycle simple household items. Just because an item doesn’t work for its given use anymore doesn’t mean it’s automatically trash. There are so many ways to reuse, reduce, and recycle, and I love that companies are getting on board with it, too. In fact, Energizer is hosting a GuiltFreeEnergy Giveaway, with $1,000 in gift cards to celebrate their new battery, the first on the market to use recycled batteries and materials. Who wouldn’t want to win this?

GuiltFreeEnergy Giveaway – $1,000 in Gift Cards

Are you on the bandwagon? What are your favorite ways to upcycle?


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    Comments

  • Angie Bailey


    These are some great tips and I already use some of them. I’ve never noticed recycle batteries before. We use rechargeable batteries. I reuse a lot of containers for school/work lunches. I never thought to reuse the envelops though. My chiropractor used to send me bills in the mail but I would just make payments when I stopped in and I always took their envelops back and they were very appreciative. 🙂

  • Sarah B


    These are really great tips! I especially love the tissue box for car trash! Great thinking! #client

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