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CZ-Tip - Repurposing with a Purpose

Find ways to get to, protect, and enjoy the coast with tips from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM).
penguin ornament
A yogurt container was repurposed into a penguin ornament
with some black paint, felt, ribbon, googly eyes, and imagination.

The expression “waste not, want not” dates back to 1772 (according to Dictionary.com)—an era when spices were rare and highly valuable, and glassware, which was hand-blown, was a prized possession. Nearly 250 years later, grocery stores are filled with spices from around the world (not only in glass jars, but in plastic containers), and glass is factory made and commonplace. But while plentiful packaging and abundant consumer goods may be convenient, they also have impacts. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2014 facts and figures fact sheet (PDF, 2 MB), an estimated 30% of the solid waste generated in the United States is containers and packaging material. And based on the number of food wrappers, bottles, and other packaging items collected during COASTSWEEP beach cleanups, much of this material is making its way to the ocean environment. While proper disposal is key to keeping this trash and other marine debris off the coastline, waste reduction also plays a role in addressing the solid waste issue. A growing trend in the reduce-reuse-recycle approach is repurposing—i.e., embracing the “waste not, want not” philosophy by giving items that would otherwise be thrown away or recycled a useful new life. Below are some ideas for using a little ingenuity to turn common trash items into treasures.

Bottles and Jars

Glass bottles and jars, which come in many colors, sizes, and shapes, can be repurposed in a variety of creative ways. DIY Showoff has instructions for creating display-worthy containers in their Decoupaged Glass Jars and Bottles Tutorial. For a slew of additional ideas including terrariums, chandeliers, bird feeders, and Christmas trees, see 50+ Recycled Glass Bottle Projects to Make from Saved by Love Creations.

Cardboard Boxes

From thank you cards to stylish storage to decorative drink coasters, home improvement guru Bob Vila has a range of suggestions for turning old cardboard into new, useful items in his DIY blog tip, 17 Creative Ways to Reuse Cardboard Boxes.


Sets of two or three corks can be tied together with ribbon, string, or wire
and used to hold place cards for dinner parties, showers, or weddings.
They can also be used to hold flowers, feathers, or plants to add a small
decorative touch to a bureau, bookcase, or table.

Got wine corks? (If not, most restaurants are happy to share their extras.) Use the Cork Stamps instructions from Instructables to turn corks into personalized stamps, which can be used to make unique wrapping paper, cards, and stationery (using paper bags or newspaper of course!). Upcycle That can also show you how to turn old corks into mini planters for succulents in Cork Planters. If you have a dozen or so corks, Creatorbox has instructions for making upcycled wine cork trivets to protect tables and counters. If you have 130+ corks, A Beautiful Mess can show you how to make your home potentially less messy by creating a bulletin board to hold your paper scraps with Try This: a Wine Cork Bulletin Board. For more ideas, see the Addicted2Decorating curated collection of Wine Cork Crafts and DIY Decorating Projects.

Egg Cartons

When life gives you left over egg cartons…make flowers? Let the Mr Printables step-by-step guide, Recycle Craft - Egg Carton Lilies, bring some spring flowers your way any time of year. If you prefer roses, check out Recycle Egg Cartons into Beautiful Flowers from Home D-Zine. Flowers not your thing? How about making a crocodile? My Kid Craft has a full set of instructions in their aptly titled Egg Carton Crocodile.

Plastic Bags and Bottles

Girl in plastic bag stuffed costume
Repurpose old plastic bags by using them as stuffing in costumes,
such as this Halloween octopus (made from repurposed tights!).

Easily one of the largest contributors to marine debris issues, the world has a plethora of plastic bags. What should you do with the ones you've collected now that you are carrying a re-useable cloth bag to the grocery store? A Beautiful Mess can show you how to make decorative pillows using your plastic bag stash as stuffing with these step-by-step instructions, Outdoor Pillows 3 Ways (& Envelope Pillow DIY).

You can make a really colorful fish mobile using plastic bottles (and an old CD or DVD, should you have one of those to repurpose). Complete instructions on the Recycled Bottle Fish Mobile (and other recycling craft ideas) are available from All Free Crafts.

Tennis Ball Containers

Old tennis ball containers get a new life as decorative mini-trash containers.
Old tennis ball containers get a new life as decorative mini-trash containers.

The New England Aquarium came up with a great idea to lessen trash and marine debris throughout the year: take an old tennis ball container with you (small enough to fit in most knapsacks and purses) and pick up any small pieces of trash you find along the shoreline (or wherever your walks take you). Just decorate with stickers and markers and voila—you can have a portable mini trashcan to use whenever you feel like accruing some good environmental karma.

Tin Cans

mugs with fish
Vintage marine creature illustrations transform these tin cans into treasures.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Kedborn

Tin cans can be repurposed in many useful ways. After the top (and contents) have been removed, carefully use sand paper to smooth out any rough edges to create a “canvas” for crafts. Making Fence Planters from Cans from Newly Woodward gives instructions for creating festive outdoor hanging planters. Tin cans of all sizes can also be re-used to plant herbs, with or without personalized touches. See Growing Herbs In Tin Cans | 14 DIY Tin Can Herb Garden Ideas by Balcony Garden Web for details. Rebeccas DIY also gives instructions for covering cans with images, including these vintage marine creature illustrations. For instructions, and to download these images, see DIY: Fishy Tin Cans. For more ideas from around the web, see 50 Jaw-Dropping Ideas for Upcycling Tin Cans into Beautiful Household Items! by DIY & Crafts.

Options for Durables You’re Done With

From drop cloths to old towels, it’s not just packaging materials that can be diverted from the landfill or incinerator. Here are some ideas for turning the old and used into the new and useful.

Drop Cloths

When your painting project is finished, save that drop cloth! It can be turned into a hammock, a tent for kids to play in, a picnic blanket, curtains, wall art…. In fact, Saved by Love Creations has 50+ drop cloth projects!

Old Windows

From headboards to mirrors to photo display boards to coffee table tops, old windows can be repurposed to infinity. (OK, maybe not infinity, but you will find 30 ideas from architecture art design in 30 Creative Ways to Reuse Old Windows.)

Paper Recyclables

Books, magazines, newspapers, post cards, greeting cards, catalogues, sheet music—anything made of paper can be re-used in a decorative way. Here are some sources for specific inspiration: 34 Uses for Old Newspapers from Friends of the Earth; 32 Genius Things to Make with Your Old Magazines from StyleCaster; and 10 DIY Projects for Your Old Books from FLAVORWIRE. WikiHow can also show you how to decoupage anything with your old paper products in How to Decoupage.


On their own, stacked suitcase can make a vintage storage display. For 14 more possibilities, including a breakfast tray and wall shelves, see Creative Ways to Repurpose Old Suitcases from DIYs.com.


Is your favorite sweater too small or stained? Let Pop Sugar show you how to turn it into cozy pillow through their tutorial, DIY Sweater Pillows - No Sewing Machine Needed.


Old, ripped towels that still have some life left can be turned into the perfect beach tote that doubles as a mat to sit on at the beach. (Need some beach suggestions? CZM's Coast Guide Online can help!) Just follow the directions in Beach Towel Tote Bag from Martha Stewart, and you're good to go.

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