Guide to non-traditional gifts: Upcycle by taking 'trash' and converting it into something nice

This is different from mending or fixing something because the goal is to make something entirely new.

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Isabel Brown
Consumer Watchdog, Associate

Author: Isabel Brown

Consumer Watchdog, Associate

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., Oberlin College

Isabel creates social media content for the Consumer Watchdog team and manages Shep the Consumer Watchdog. Isabel lives in Philadelphia, where she enjoys community art classes, crafting with recycled materials, and bothering her partner's cat.

Upcycling is a form of recycling where you use items that would otherwise be thrown away and use them to make something new. This is different from mending or fixing something because the goal is to make something entirely new. Using your creativity, you can make something out of materials that you already have around the house or that you can find easily and inexpensively or even for free. 

The outcome of an upcycling project depends mostly on what materials you start with. It’s fun to look at the materials you have and figure out how to alter or combine them to make something new. It’s also great for reducing waste. For my upcycling projects, I start by thinking about where I can find usable waste nearby. Here are some ideas for where you can find materials that lend themselves well to a project.

Finding materials (around the house and in your neighborhood)

Home is the first place I always look when starting an upcycling project. You can find a lot in junk drawers, closets, or even something you just tossed into your recycling bin. 

Close to home, many neighborhoods have listservs or “Buy Nothing” Facebook groups where people can post about things they’re giving away for free. This can be a great place to find upcycling materials. Some of the items that I see most often in these groups are pieces of furniture, kitchenware, or other household items that are either a bit banged up or are no longer in fashion. You can also use these groups to ask for particular items. 

Sometimes people put these items on the side of the road for others to take or for garbage collection. If you keep an eye out for furniture that just needs a new coat of paint, or decorative items such as lamps or vases that just need a bit of a facelift, you can get a lot of mileage out of things your neighbors are trying to throw away. Local thrift stores and garage sales are also great places to find cheap upcycling materials. When buying resold items it’s good to keep in mind that the both thrift stores and garage sales are supposed to abide by CPSC product safety guidelines.

Cardboard boxes

End product: Paper mache trays

Use a box cutter, cardboard, newspaper, tape, glue, and paint. Cut the cardboard and tape into the desired shape. Cover with strips of newspaper dipped in glue or paste. You can use Elmer’s glue diluted with water or paste made from flour and water. Check out @corriebethmakes on TikTok for her tray video tutorial and her lamp base video tutorial

Plastic bags

End product: Fused plastic reusable bags

You can make reusable grocery bags, makeup bags, pencil cases, etc. with this technique. This project requires a sewing machine. Make sure you’re using sturdy thread. Also use an iron, parchment paper, plastic bags and scissors. Cut plastic bags into flat rectangles, fuse them together with the iron, and then use the material like fabric. Here’s an online tutorial by Julie Legg on ThisNZLife for how to do this.

End product: Plarn 

This technique requires some crocheting know-how. Plarn, short for “plastic yarn”, is one of my favorite ways to use plastic bags. All you need are plastic bags, scissors and a crochet hook. There’s so much you can make with plarn. You can use it to make reusable bags, baskets, doormats, bath mats, sleeping pads (I’ve made some to donate to unhoused people in my neighborhood), coasters, placemats and so much more. Check out this online tutorial by Pam Baker from Kenarry.

Tee shirts

End product: Rag rug

You can use tee shirts of any color to make a comfy rug or doormat. All you need is a bunch of old tee shirts and a pair of scissors. This no-sew braided rag rug tutorial by Dana at the Wonder Forest is great for beginners. For slightly more complex rug ideas, check out 9 ways to make a rag rug from UpcycleMyStuff.com.

End product: Pillow cover

Old tee shirts with a cool pattern or design are perfect for this. All you need is a tee shirt, a pillow insert or stuffing and some scissors. You can get creative with the stuffing by using fabric scraps or shredded plastic bags. Cut the tee shirt into two large squares and make little cuts around the edge like fringe. Then tie one strip from the front piece to another on the back. Continue all the way around. Here’s a video tutorial by WhatsUpMoms for the first fringe style. For a braided style, check out the video tutorial from Goodful. End product: Glasses

It’s surprisingly easy to cut old wine bottles into a pretty new set of drinking glasses. You need a wine bottle, cotton string, a flammable solution such as acetone, lighter fluid, or rubbing alcohol, a lighter, sandpaper and a sink full of ice water. Soak the string in the solution, wrap it around where you want to cut the glass, light the string on fire, then put the glass into the ice bath. The flame and quick cool down will cut the glass. Use the sandpaper to smooth the edge. Check out the online tutorial from the Art of Manliness for more details.

End product: Self-watering herb planters 

You can make these using the same glass-cutting method as the drinking glasses. The only difference is keeping the top part of the bottle, flipping it over and putting a plant inside. Line the inside of the upper part of the glass with wire mesh to hold in the dirt. Hang a piece of cotton string from the mesh into the bottom half of the bottle to wick water up into the plant. So long as the bottom part of the planter is full of water, this will keep the herbs sufficiently watered so you can leave them on your kitchen windowsill and forget about them. This online tutorial from Off Grid World explains it all. For a fun hack, you can propagate a lot of herbs, including basil, mint and oregano. Here’s a guide for propagating herbs.

Paper

End product: Recycled paper

This requires a bit more set up. In addition to paper scraps, a blender, a plastic bin, a sponge, and pieces of absorbent fabric, you need a mould and deckle. A mould and deckle are two frames. The mould has a screen while the deckle is just a frame. Together, they let you scoop up wet paper pulp into the shape or a piece of paper. After the pulp is scooped you can transfer it to a drying surface. To make a mould and deckle, all you need are two picture frames that are the same size, some wire mesh or window screening, duct tape, wire cutters, and an industrial stapler. Here’s an online tutorial for making a mould and deckle. Then, check out this online tutorial for making recycled paper from Paperslurry. Once you have the paper, you can make personalized stationary (see instructions for vegetable stamps below) or use it to make a journal or sketchbook. Here’s a video tutorial for easy book binding methods.

Collage materials

What to do with them: Collage

I’ve used my neighborhood Facebook page to ask for collage materials. Old art books, gardening books with botanical drawings, textbooks with illustrations, wrapping paper and vintage magazines are some of my favorite places to find images to cut out and use for collages. Basic craft glue is great for collages on paper. 

What to do with them: Decoupage

Decoupage is when you collage onto an object. Check out this video tutorial to see how it’s done. This can be a really fun way to revamp anything from an old tool chest to picture frames to candle sticks. This is also a great way to make holiday ornaments. For decoupage, try using a more heavy-duty glue such as Mod Podge. You can also decoupage dishes and other kitchen items using dishwasher-safe Mod Podge. 

Bed sheets

Bed sheets are great for sewing projects and they can provide a good amount of fabric at little or no cost. A great gift for any college student in your life could be a tie-dyed tapestry that can be used as a bed cover, a picnic blanket, and a wall decoration. In addition to tie-dye, there are lots of fun ways to use plants and other organic materials to dye or decorate fabric. Most natural dyes work best on organic fibers, so cotton bed sheets are perfect for this. 

What to do with them: Eco-printing

Eco printing is the process of laying leaves or flowers onto the fabric, rolling it up tightly around a wooden pole or dowel (an old wooden broom stick works perfectly), tying it up, and boiling it on low heat for a while. This lets the natural pigments from the leaves print onto the fabric. Certain plants are better for this than others. Check out online tutorials for what native plants you can find in your area to use. Here’s a tutorial for beginners.

What to do with them: Natural dyes

Using plants and other natural sources for dying can be easy, cheap, and fun. Natural dying requires the fabric (ideally cotton, wool, silk or another natural fiber), the material that gives off the color (kitchen scraps such as yellow onion skins are great), and a mordant which helps the pigment stick to the fabric. This tutorial recommends using salt as a mordant for berries and vinegar for other natural dyes.

Newspapers

Odds are that either you or your neighbor may have a stack of old newspapers laying around. These are great for making recycled paper or paper mache. Newsprint can also be a great collage or decoupage material.

Rope

What to make with it: Rope rug 

This is an easy tutorial for making an outdoor rug or doormat using rope. You attach each length of rope to the next using thread or string. You can also get more fancy by coiling the rope around itself in a spiral and holding the rope together using hot glue or thread. You can also paint these rugs.

Candles 

What to make with them: New candles

This is a great way to reuse your and  your neighbors’ sad, half-used, unscented candles or candles you find at a thrift store. From there, all you need are some candle wicks (you can find these at a craft store) or some cotton kitchen twine. You can melt the old candles down and either use the dip method to make long tapered candles, or add some of your favorite essential oils and pour the melted wax into a glass container. Here’s an online tutorial you can follow using whatever container you choose.

Lamp shades

What to make with them: Painted lampshades

Here are some examples of designs you can paint onto lamp shades to make them unique. These were made using acrylic paint diluted with water. This is a great example of how you can add an artistic touch to an otherwise boring item. Most lampshades are made of a canvas-like material that is easy to paint. Markers would also work great for this sort of project. 

Mirror

What to make with it: A picture frame

This is a mirror that was found in pretty bad shape on the side of the road. All it needed was deep cleaning, a fresh coat of paint, and some decoration. This process would also work great on an old picture frame. If you can’t find one on the side of the road, check your local thrift store. A hand-painted or decoupaged picture frame with a nice photo in it would make a great holiday gift. 

Plant pots

I’m always on the lookout for plant pots. These can be easily painted or decorated and can make an excellent gift for any loved one with a green thumb. 

Free wood scraps at the lumber yard

You can ask for wood cut offs from Home Depot, Lowes, or other places where you can buy lumber. A lot of the time you can get these for free. You can then ask the woodshop to cut the pieces to whatever dimensions you want. 

What to make with them: Jenga pieces

You can get 2-foot x 4-foot wood cuttings cut into 10 ½-inch long blocks. You need 54 blocks to make an oversized game of Jenga. This can be a great gift as a game to play with loved ones. After getting the pieces cut, you should sand the edges to prevent any splinters while playing the game. This online tutorial also recommends building a wooden base for the game but, in all honesty, you can probably skip that part and get right to playing.

What to make with them: a hula hoop shelf

This project can also be made using wood cuttings. It works best with 8’x1’ boards. You also need a hula hoop, a screwdriver, a drill bit, screws, and spray paint. This example used wood stain for the board. Instead, you could paint them. High-end versions of this shelf retail for up to $200 and you could make it for so much less. Here’s a video tutorial.

 

Return to Buy Less, Give More main page for other gift ideas

 

Isabel Brown
Consumer Watchdog, Associate

Author: Isabel Brown

Consumer Watchdog, Associate

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., Oberlin College

Isabel creates social media content for the Consumer Watchdog team and manages Shep the Consumer Watchdog. Isabel lives in Philadelphia, where she enjoys community art classes, crafting with recycled materials, and bothering her partner's cat.