Think Like a Pioneer: Turn Your Trash Into Treasure

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Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It’s a mantra for green living that we’ve all heard for years. And while recycling has become more and more mainstream, with even Grandma lugging the blue box out for curbside recycling, and sorting and filtering for her weekly trip to City Carton [recycling plant], Reduce and Reuse have been nearly forgotten in the recycling frenzy.

Melting old crayons can give them new life. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Melting old crayons can give them new life. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

It’s not yet trendy to make noticeable cutbacks and people will definitely look at you funny if you tell them you are making a vase out of a burned out light bulb. But the times they are a’ changin’ and one thing is for sure: Reducing and reusing are equally important components of this three-part commitment to living more sustainably.

We must start thinking harder about reducing and reusing. I feel like I’ve been mouthing the words for years without considering their meaning, comfortable in the fact that I’m doing my part. The truth is we cannot begin to affect climate change by recycling alone; we must incorporate all three of these ideas into our daily routine. Read on for some of our favorite ways to make new stuff from your old stuff.

Crayons, Reborn: This is a fun project to make with the kids. Take your old nubs and remove the paper. Pre-heat your oven to 275°. Place crayons in a mold or lined muffin cups (we used silicon tart cups). Place in the oven for 10 minutes. Allow to cool and unmold. You can also reuse old candle wax in the same manner, just add a piece of wick before the wax sets.

Tin Cans: Covering tin cans is fun and easy and there’s about a million things you can store in them. Use old magazines, tissue paper, typewriter ribbon, or photos to make your desired collage. Then just use plain old school glue and an old paintbrush to paste your collection to a clean tin can. Add buttons, beads, shells, old broken jewelry bits, or anything you can imagine. You can store cooking utensils, pens and pencils, flowers, coins, and all kinds of good stuff in these decorative cans.

Jars & Bottles: My new favorite use for old jars is to shake up oil-based salad dressings. The shaking effectively emulsifies the oil and vinegar and you can store your dressings in the fridge in these jars. Jars can also be used for bath salts, storing nails and screws (old baby food jars fastened to the wall of your garage is a great place to keep all kinds of useful small parts), a jar for your morning coffee, vases, storing beads, keeping leftovers, carrying water to the dog park, packaging gifts, shaking up gravy, and storing bulk nuts.

An old light bulb can become an elegant hanging vase. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

An old light bulb can become an elegant hanging vase. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Old Light Bulbs: Old light bulbs make adorable vases. Hollow out the bulb (instructions are at TeamDroid), then turn it into a pretty vase. Visit Instructables for detailed instructions.

Dry-Cleaning Hangers: A quick survey of area cleaners reveals: YES! Dry cleaners will take back and reuse hangers. They request that hangers be in good repair.

Coffee Cans: Use to collect spare change, or as a scoop for the sandbox or litter box.

Egg Cartons: Use to pack Christmas ornaments, sprout seedlings, store golf balls, or as a palette for paints.

Newspapers: Roll Christmas lights around old newspapers. Shred and use for packaging fragile items. Use as gift wrap. Wash windows — newspapers are the best way [to] get streak-free windows. Stuff into hats or purses while storing to retain their shape. If you have a farm, they can be shredded and used for animal bedding or to create garden mulch.

Plastic Bags: Reuse as a trash can liner or for shopping, as a trash can for your car, for dirty clothes storage when you go on a trip, or for picking up pet poo. Old zip-top plastic bags can be re-purposed for storing pens, pencils, markers, or crayons.

Plastic Bottles and Containers: I love storing cheese (especially hard cheese) in “clam shells” from New Pi’s deli. Refill tiny “travel size” bottles with more lotion, soap, and shampoos for your next trip. Send leftovers home with friends in old sour cream, salsa, and cottage cheese containers; they won’t have to worry about returning your “Tupperware.” Punch holes in the bottoms of plastic containers and use them as planters with the lid placed underneath to catch the drainage. Refill old plastic soap dispensers with bulk soap and reuse old spray bottles for spritzing your plants with water.

Wine Bottles: We made a cute soap dispenser out of an old wine bottle. Mara designed the fun label and printed it on label paper. The topper is a 1 oz. wine pourer. These are sweet gifts. You can also invert this design and hang it by a decorative wire to make a hummingbird feeder. For a pretty table decoration, fill the bottle with a short strand of Christmas lights and decorate with shimmery ribbons, glitter, or beads.

Fabric Softener Sheets: Put them in drawers after using to keep clothes smelling fresh. Get rid of static by rubbing them over staticky clothing.

CD’s: Make coasters by decorating old cd’s and covering the bottom with cork. Use as a paint palette, or bust them into pieces to use as bike reflectors. Visit Jim Watters’ PhotoCreations to see how to make a funky lamp from old cd’s.

Create a funky shopping bag from an old t-shirt. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Create a funky shopping bag from an old t-shirt. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Old Mouse Pads: Cut into squares and affix to the bottom of your furniture to protect the legs from scratching up your floor. Cover with fabric to make coasters.

Boxes and Cardboard: Reuse tissue boxes to hold plastic grocery bags.

T-shirt Bag: Take your old favorite t-shirt and turn it inside-out. Cut off the sleeves inside the seam. Get a bowl (I used a 10″ diameter bowl) and trace a half-circle around the neck of the t-shirt. Cut out the half-circle. Sew the bottom shut. Turn it right-side out. I recommend a sturdy small or medium sized shirt for a handy shopping bag size.

Here are some great resources to find free stuff in your community:





Recycling Revolution

Green Living Ideas


Recycle This

Pioneer Thinking


Choose to Reuse, by Nikki & David Goldbeck

Reprinted by permission from The Catalyst, New Pioneer Co-op‘s Newsletter, c. 2009

Spiritual Sustainability: Save the Earth Without Killing Yourself

For much of my life, I have zealously pursued the ideal of sustainable living. A deep love for the natural world, coupled with an equally deep perfectionist streak, made me alternately — depending on the flavor of the times — an object of curiosity or subject to ridicule. However, over the past five years, I have had to admit that this ultra-determined sort of sustainability has not produced the eco-perfect life that I expected.

Rooker drives an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

Driving an SUV in a zero-elevation town. Photo: Amanda Rooker

For example: I currently live in York County, Virginia — a.k.a. Suburbia, U.S.A. My community is organized into neat lines of strip malls alternating with freshly bulldozed lots zoned for new construction. Not only do I drive an SUV to cart my kids around a zero-elevation town, but I drive a black SUV — not exactly a sustainable choice for the sweltering South. Last week I bought my groceries at Wal-Mart. The only obviously sustainable practice I have going for me is that my son takes the school bus. How did I get here? And how can I, in any conceivable worldview, still believe that I am committed to sustainable living?

When I was fifteen, ecology was still a fringe concept in my part of the world. But as I learned more and more about how particular human practices harmed the earth as a whole, it didn’t take long for me to become radically devoted to all things green. And with every new piece of information, I added a new required practice to my life. I became a vegetarian to minimize my food-energy footprint. I insisted my mother replace paper napkins with cloth napkins (which she, and I, have used daily ever since). My first job was working in a third-world import store, where I developed a taste for brightly colored Guatemalan clothing and handmade African jewelry. Instead of Christmas gifts, I asked family and friends to donate to the Heifer Project.

An organic garden

Growing an organic garden.

After I was married, I grew my own organic garden of vegetables and herbs; made all of my own household cleaners under the expert guidance of Clean House Clean Planet; bought handmade soap from a friend’s local business; frequented the farmer’s markets; and bought or received almost every other product in our home secondhand. The more I learned, the more practices I heaped upon myself. At the time I had high energy, low expenses, and no dependents, so I was able to maintain my ever-expanding list of practices.

When I became pregnant with my first child, my imagination had molded my long list of practices into a detailed ideal of sustainable living, and I could define it down to the color of the hand-woven place mats on my sustainably harvested hardwood kitchen table. I would have all of my children (and there would be many) without drugs and in harmony with my body’s natural processes. Not a crumb of processed food would touch our lips. I was going to put aside career to be Earth Mother.

I quickly learned that intentions do not equal reality. Undaunted by the fact that my idealized natural childbirth turned into an emergency C-section, I poured all my energy into using cloth diapers, searching out affordable organic food (by this time I had let my garden go), and making homemade baby food and natural cleaners. But what was painfully absent was joy — joy in my son and joy as a mother. Nothing was natural about this.

After I had my second son, I found that keeping two children under two years old alive took all my time and effort. Not only was I unable to keep up all of the sustainable practices I believed were so important, I could no longer prioritize which were most important and which were actually contradictory. If I was constantly assessing whether our activity or snack was the best possible choice, I had no time to linger and play with my kids. My ideal of sustaining the earth was now directly competing with my responsibility of sustaining my children’s lives — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.

The death blow to my sustainable-living ideal finally came when our household income was suddenly slashed by two-thirds. Whatever spare time or energy I had was now devoted to simply keeping our bills paid on time and trying to figure out how to keep food — any kind of food — in our refrigerator. Our options were limited to the easiest and the cheapest, and I had no choice but to accept it. I laid down my ideal as simply impossible. Living sustainably was only for the wealthy and/or childless. I made my peace with Wal-Mart, my SUV, and my preservative-laden, pesticide-laden, cheaper food. And I spent a year simply surviving, no longer worrying about whether each action was the most “sustainable” or not.


To live sustainably, honor the process of natural growth.

I may have thought I was just too poor and too busy to live sustainably, but in reality, it was my product-based, practice-based ideal of sustainable living that was not sustainable. My zealous, determined perfectionism fundamentally contradicted the natural, cyclical growing processes that govern not only the natural world I claimed to love and preserve, but us as human beings, too.

Trying to create a perfect external ideal of sustainability, as opposed to allowing our lives to grow naturally from our internal values, is like trying to build a tree (even from sustainably harvested wood) instead of planting a seed. We might get visible results faster, but it will be impossible to maintain over time. To live sustainably long term, I had to learn to honor the spiritual process that brings the renewable patterns of natural growth deep within ourselves.

Life has a way of showing us that its principles will prevail, and seeks — perhaps even in a kind way — to relieve us of the impossible burden of building a living thing. Even when I didn’t recognize what was happening, the new priorities of motherhood and our limited budget pruned my overgrown ideal of sustainability down to a stump. I thought that part of me was gone forever. But what is true physically is also true spiritually: destruction yields new life. Pruning creates vibrant growth not possible otherwise.

Another physical principle that has a spiritual parallel, I learned from my naturopath: Even if the body is deficient in many areas, it will only take in what will address the primary deficiency. Pouring supplements into your body (or in this case, adding sustainable practices) to address visible symptoms is a waste of time, money, and energy. Only when the core deficiency is met will the body be capable of absorbing what it needs to address the next core need. That’s exactly what was happening to me spiritually: Establishing new habits is very much a spiritual process. It not only takes time, but takes everything in turn: First the seed, then the shoot, then the leaves, then the fruit.

In the absence of those heavy, burdensome expectations, I was able to discern the living value beneath all of those practices, which was my love of the natural world. That love never died, it was just hidden and weakened by the crazy overgrowth of too many practices. So, for a while, I simply enjoyed the world around me with my children, unburdened by obligatory practices. And that was when I really started to grow: not outwardly, but inwardly. To my surprise, specific corollary values began to branch out naturally from that primary value: pursuing health naturally and investing in local, seasonal, whole food sources. Just two corollary values – not even practices or habits yet.

But from simply naming and nurturing these values, I am beginning to see the fruit of a few new practices that are enlivening rather than burdensome. For example, I have switched from traditional primary care to a gifted, local naturopathic doctor for health maintenance. As part of the pruning, I gave up running (which according to my ideal was the most “sustainable” exercise). But in its place has grown the habit of weekly dance and yoga classes at the YMCA — for the first time in my life, exercise enlivens me. I cook simply and from scratch as much as I’m able, even though our budget still limits how much local, seasonal food I can afford. And for now, that’s enough.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods.

Making choices sometimes provides the option of organic foods. Photo: Amanda Rooker

But here the fruit of allowing practices to grow naturally from within really pays off: I now know how to prioritize practices within limited means. For example, I know that my practice of buying local whenever possible is rooted in my value of fresh, nutrient-rich food and pursuing health naturally. Therefore, my first and best options are our local farms and the bulk natural foods catalog. When I can’t afford those options, I’m free to shop at the cheapest, most convenient place because evaluated on the basis of natural health, they’re pretty much equal.

But evaluating my food options based on, for example, economic justice for small, local businesses who pay a living wage, would yield completely different results. The local farm wouldn’t be the first and best choice if it used migrant workers, nor would all remaining options be equal. That’s how I can freely shop at, say, Wal-Mart, while someone else might not. Or how I can drive an SUV guilt-free — the carbon footprint branch hasn’t begun growing yet.

True vision provides a decision-making matrix that goes beyond simple monetary cost or objective right-and-wrong, helping us to discern which practice to prioritize and which to simply let go. If we trust that we are indeed living things to be grown and not built, we will trust that priorities and practices will grow in their own time. I certainly have plenty to do in the meantime to nurture what has already begun growing.

Pruning yields fruit

Nurture love of the natural world.

So I am grateful for the pruning process of the last five years, because I’ve finally learned that true sustainability is not evaluated based on an objective list of practices and products, but on how well we yield to a spiritual process — the same cyclical growing process that governs the earth we love. If we nurture our love of the natural world, it will naturally produce the fruit of practices over time. And this approach is certainly no adolescent “do-what-you-feel-like” philosophy.

Most of us determined perfectionists (and virtually all mothers) resist this equally deadly extreme for good reason: Sometimes we simply must do what is required, whether we want to or not. Certain (ideally, codified) minimal practices should be required of all of us, no matter what we define as burdensome. But the key here is to learn the difference between building and growing. Growing certainly requires work that we must do, whether we feel like it or not. Yet our responsibility is not to produce the living thing itself, but merely to enable it to grow the way it was designed.

This kind of spiritual sustainability is tremendously freeing, because we are operating according to design. It costs nothing and produces much. On the other hand, it is not cheap. Just as in the natural world, new life comes at great cost: It requires the seed, or the ideal, to die. It requires us to accept the pruning and to appear to be an ugly, dead stump to undiscerning eyes, even when everyone else has birds flocking to their branches.

If we truly love the natural world and are students of its ways, we will know that pruning burdensome branches increases growth in the long term. This growth will not only be physical, through the addition of visible practices, but spiritual: The process also yields within us the sustaining virtues of humility, perseverance, and faith. In other words, honoring the growth process with patience is how our sustainable practices will be well-rooted enough to sustain us as well — with any budget and in any context. Even while driving our SUV to Wal-Mart.

Amanda Rooker

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)