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I have realized over the last seven months that eliminating one’s trash has a lot to do with being able to creatively reuse materials. Of course, even in our American “throw-away” culture, certain consumer packaging items are commonly offered alternative lives before being tossed in the trash.  Everyone knows that plastic yogurt and hummus containers make great tupperware; and with a little effort, old wine corks can be assembled into a stylish bulletin board or drink coasters.

Here are a few more would-be trash items that I have found uses for.  I would love to hear ideas of how others are reusing or “upcycling” materials.

Dog food bags:
I have not been able to find bulk dog food on my island, and dog food bags cannot be recycled or composted because there is a layer of plastic lining on the inside of each bag.  I looked into making my own dog food, but it sounds like a pretty big time commitment.  So, I continue to purchase dry dog food from the store.  It happens that dog food bags make excellent containers for dry or brown compost materials.

Reusing dog food bags

Old dog food bags make great containers for dry/brown compost material

When I start harvesting my finished compost, I will be able to store it in these bags as well.

Dryer lint:
You can put dryer lint into your compost, but only if it is composed of natural fibers. Rather than worry about the composition of my clothing, I have tried a couple suggestions from folks online for reusing dryer lint.
Suggestion 1: Dryer lint = kindling.  The last time I went camping with my boyfriend, we brought some lint to use for starting the campfire.  Dryer lint happens to be very flammable and was a very successful fire starter – even with the flint and steel.

Lint flint and steel

Dryer lint is a great fire starter, even using flint and steel

Suggestion 2: Dryer lint = Great bird nest material.  Something I have yet to be successful with, however, is encouraging our local bird population to use my dryer lint for their nests.  I have tried placing our box of lint in a few places, including in a tree that I see birds frequent everyday, but there have been no takers.

lint in a tree

"Bird nest material - free for the taking!"

I even tried to make it a bit more natural and placed some directly on the tree.

Plumeria lint tree

Plumeria lint tree

That technique did not work either.  If anyone has tried this and has been successful – I would love some tips.

Ziplock bags:
I don’t need to explain the many ways to use and reuse Ziplock bags.  Currently my stash of Ziplock bags have become essential to helping sooth a former shoulder injury during this summer’s swimming season.  Since my gel pack ripped last year, I have been using Ziplock bags with crushed ice – ultimately wasting a lot of ice and water.  A roommate clued me into the fact that you can make your own reusable gel-like ice packs using Ziplock bags, water and alcohol (thanks Cori!).  I found a recipe online, tried it out, and it worked!  After about four hours in the freezer, I had homemade ice packs that were flexible like the gel packs you buy at the store.  This is one of several recipes that I found on the Tipnut website:

Reusable gel type ice packs:
2 cups water
1/3 cup vodka (80 proof)
Food coloring (any color you like)
Ziploc Freezer Bag

Pour liquids into ziploc freezer bag, add food coloring (you’ll know at a glance that it’s your ice pack and not something to consume) and freeze. Makes a nice gel type icepack.

When taking ice packs from freezer to use, wrap in towel first before applying to body. If ice packs freeze too hard and aren’t slushy, simply allow the ice to melt in bag then add more alcohol.

ice packs

Mix vodka and water and put into a ziplock bag

home-made ice pack

Freeze for four hours and your ice pack is ready to use

Other “reuse to reduce” ideas:

Zero waste conference:  Large gatherings, such as conferences, are notorious for generating lots of waste.  Besides the disposable coffee cups and eating ware, participants are many times given things that they rarely use after the conference, like bags and name tags.  A colleague in my office is working on a zero-waste plan for an upcoming conference which includes gathering name tag lanyards to reuse and give out to participants.

Lanyard recycling

Reusing lanyards to reduce conference waste

Tea leaf strainers:  I have finally bought a tea ball and a tea strainer at a kitchen store that I can reuse again and again with loose leaf tea.  The bulk loose leaf tea was more difficult to find, but they sell some nice varieties at “Down To Earth” in Kailua in the bulk spice section.  I even found a couple chai spiced varieties.

tea ball

Reusing a tea ball means no more packaging

Re-use building materials:  It seems a shame that the materials of a house or other building just go to waste after it is demolished.  Not only is a lot of trash produced, but a lot of resources wasted as well.  Since 2007, however, Re-use Hawaii has been offering a green alternative to demolition: deconstruction. According to their website, Re-use Hawaii has performed over 100 deconstruction projects and has kept over 1000 tons of material from entering the landfill on Oahu.  They stock a wide variety of items and even suggestions for how to reuse some of the items.  Check out what they have in stock at their warehouse.

Reuse Hawaii

Re-use Hawaii salvages and sells building material

Anyone have experiences reusing materials that most people dump in the trash? I would love to hear about them!

The big news for this post is that it has officially been six months since I started my trash-free lifestyle experiment.  I was hoping to come up with something meaningful and deep to say about what I have learned, but nothing ever came to me.  Instead I will share the coolest part, a frustrating part, and something that inspires me to continue to believe in a world without trash.

First, however, a six-month trash update:

My trash after six months

Six-month trash break down

My trash has increased since the last time I sorted through its contents at Week 15, mainly in the medical and dental category.  My miscellaneous plastic also increased because I ordered a new piece of clothing online which came in plastic packaging, and bought glass food containers which were wrapped in thin plastic.

How much does six-months of trash weigh?

Six months of trash weighs....

...a little under a half a pound

This is the trash I originally labeled in one of my first posts as”Trash I Need To Figure Out What To Do With.”  The long term plan has always been to upcycle the contents of this bag into some kind of art piece or pieces.   I am still brainstorming this idea and process in my head.  I would love to make a mosaic, however, if anyone has any other ideas (now that you have seen all my trash!) I would love to hear about them.

I have also been separating my trash into another category I named, “Definitely Biodegradable.”  I ripped and tore-up some of that trash over the last six months, adding it to my trash can compost bin. Most of it, however, ended up in this 56 Qt container and has been sitting there for, well, about six months.

Definitely Biodegradable Trash Bin

I discovered that ripping up each box, egg carton, and food wrapper doesn’t take too much time, however it takes enough time that it is easy to put off.  Enter the hand-me-down shredder.

Shredded and ready for the compost bin

I am not sure how much the shredder I used, the Fellowes Powershred PS 60CC, cost when it was purchased years ago, but it did a fabulous job and tore apart everything in the bin, including a thick cardboard laundry detergent box, toilet paper rolls, and egg cartons (after I broke them apart a bit), and took me less than 30 minutes to complete.  A shredder is a great tool to have when using compost as a way to deal with some of your trash.

Speaking of compost, the coolest part about my trash-free experiment so far has actually been the opportunity to see a lot of my waste “magically” turn into soil.  A couple weeks back I started a new trash can compost bin, because my original bin was pretty full and nicely turning into soil.

Original trash can compost bin after six months

I mentioned in a recent post that I had found worms in my compost bin – worms that I never put there to begin with.  Digging through my compost bin recently, I discovered that these worms had multiplied.  I took a video to show how worms have turned my compost bin into their new home (note: the pieces of shiny, bluish material in the bin are pieces of the two “Compostable” Sun Chip bags that I cut up and put in the bin months ago but never decomposed).

After researching a bit on on the internet I learned that my worms are not technically “composting worms” or “Red wigglers” since I am also finding them deeper in the compost. Red wigglers like to live only at the surface, right underneath decomposing matter and manure.  However, I also discovered that other worms that often find their way to compost piles – and my bin – do provide a similar benefit to a compost pile as the red wigglers, eating the decomposing matter and creating worm poop, or vermicastings.  They just don’t do it as fast and, like the various decomposers that help break down material in a compost bin or pile, they will visit a pile or bin when it is the right time.  I did not see the worms when my compost bin was new, because it was probably too hot. Working with my new bin, I am reminded that in the beginning, the compost mix can be slimy, smelly, and filled with lots of insects and bugs.

New trash can compost bin

But with a little time and patience, compost magic will happen and even the worms will stop by to help.

Compost magic

A frustrating part about my trash-free experiment has been the inability to find bulk toilet paper not wrapped in plastic.  I have gotten around this by purchasing individually wrapped rolls at Longs, but they cost close to $2.00 each.  If I wanted to buy this same brand, which claims itself to be eco-friendly, in bulk, the rolls would be wrapped together in plastic.  I still need to do more research to find out where large companies and office buildings purchase their TP, because I have a feeling their rolls probably come in large cardboard boxes, with no extra plastic wrapping the rolls.  Why we, the individual consumer, don’t have that choice, is quite frustrating to me.

It seems that a lot of my frustration with trying to be trash-free actually always involves plastic.  Plastic is so infiltrated into our western, consumer world, that it seems like it will never go away, and never allowing us the chance to live trash-free and more sustainable with the earth.  That is why when I see companies like Preserve, I am inspired to continue to believe in a world without trash. My first introduction to this company was when I purchased one of their toothbrushes.  A couple weeks ago I purchased one of their razors.

Preserve razor is made out of recycled plastic yogurt containers

Like the toothbrush, the razor body is also made out of recycled yogurt cups (the blades are replaceable).  The packaging it comes in is actually a carrying case made with post-consumer recycled PET #1.  And inside, directions (printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper), explain how you can put the razor back into the recycling stream yet again by sending it back to the company or by dropping it off at a “Preserve Gimme 5” station at various Whole Foods stores.  Currently Hawaii is not on the list of participating states in this program, but perhaps with a little pressure, the Whole Foods here will also get on board.  I just became a friend of Whole Foods Kahala on Facebook and sent them a request to add this recycling program to their stores.  Crossing my fingers…