Reusing and Recycling in the Garden
The average American generates 4.5 pounds of trash per day; a whopping 1,642 pounds every year. Recycling programs certainly help lighten the load, but even recycling takes a toll on the environment. It takes trucks and processing plants to transport and recycle the items we put in our little bins on trash day. By far, the best way to help the environment is to shop for items that use less packaging in the first place. A close second is to reuse what you have. By reusing the items usually tossed in the trash or recycling bin, we can go a long way toward reducing our impact on the environment.
Let’s take a look at a few common items found in most trash cans and recycling bins:
Plastic Milk Jugs
Americans throw away millions of plastic bottles every year. We use 2.5 million plastic bottles per day–most of them are milk jugs and water bottles. According to the EPA, milk jugs that aren’t recycled will never degrade. That’s right. Never. But plastic milk jugs have plenty of uses in the garden. Here are just a few:
1. Milk Jug Bird Feeder
This is a great project to do with children. You’ll need:
- A One gallon plastic milk jug, washed well and dried (with cap)
- A utility knife or sharp scissors
- Twine (if you want to hang the feeder)
- A pencil, dowel, or fairly straight, thin tree branch (for perches)
- Start by cutting either round or rectangular shaped holes in two or three sides of the jug. If you want to attract larger birds, make your holes larger; smaller birds, smaller holes.
- Under each hole, use the utility knife or scissors to make a small “X” shaped slit. This will hold your perch. It should be big enough to slide the pencil, dowel, or branch into, but small enough to hold it in very securely.
- Cut a few small slits in the bottom of the jug. This will allow any water that happens to get into your feeder to drain out.
- If you want to hang the feeder, punch two holes near the top of the jug and run your twine through.
- Fill with seed, and enjoy!
You can make several of these, filled with different types of seed to attract different birds. Some can have small holes, others can have large holes. You’ve got a bird feeding station for free!
2. Store granular fertilizers.
My favorite organic granular fertilizer comes in a bag, which I inevitably end up dumping at least once a year, knocking it over while reaching for something else. To keep the fertilizer dry, contained, and ready to use, funnel it into a clean, dry milk jug. Cut out the label and instructions from the bag and tape it to the side of the milk jug. No more spills!
4. Store food scraps for the compost pile.
Sure, you can purchase cute little crocks to keep on your counter to store kitchen scraps in, but why? A plastic milk jug, with the very top cut off so you have a bigger opening, is the perfect container for kitchen scraps. Store it in your refrigerator or freezer, throw the scraps in as necessary, and when it’s full, take the container out and dump it in the compost. It’s not cute, but it works.
There are many, many uses for milk jugs in the garden. Be creative.
Surprisingly, many yogurt containers aren’t recyclable at all. Most yogurt containers are produced with polypropylene (#5) plastic, which isn’t recycled in most communities. Even those made with #2 HDPE plastic, which is normally recycled, may be trashed once they get to the recycling center because they melt at a different temperature than the plastic bottles made of #2 HDPE. In light of this, reducing the number of yogurt containers you purchase, and reusing as many as possible, is even more important.
Ideas for reusing single-serving yogurt containers:
- Start seeds in yogurt cups. Often, the yogurt cup will be big enough for the seedling to stay in until it is ready to be planted in the garden. Simply poke a few drainage holes in the bottom, and plant them up. Wash them out after you’ve planted the seedlings outside, and use them again next time.
- Yogurt cups make excellent scoops for potting soil, grass seed, granular fertilizers, or bird seed.
- Cut the bottom out of the yogurt cup and place the rest of the cup around newly planted seedlings. Press the bottomless cup an inch or two into the soil, and you have a cutworm collar.
- Use them in the potting shed for storing odds and ends like hose washers, plant markers, and pieces of broken pots for covering drainage holes.
- Make a twine dispenser. This is especially useful once you’ve gotten close to the end of a roll of twine, and it won’t really stay in a “roll” anymore. Simply poke a hole in the bottom of the container and feed the end of the twine through it from the inside. Use masking or duct tape to close the open end and keep the twine from falling out.
Kitchen Scraps and Lawn and Garden Waste
Compost! The vast, overwhelming majority of kitchen waste items can be put into a compost pile:
- Vegetable and fruit peels
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Produce past its prime
Lawn and garden waste is perfect for the compost pile. Compost all of the following:
- Grass clippings
- Small twigs and branches
- Deadheaded flowers
- Weeds (before they’ve set seed)
- Old mulch
To learn more about composting, see the following articles:
Plastic Shopping Bags
Oh, the plastic shopping bag: carrier of groceries, liner of bathroom wastebaskets, handy dog waste picker-upper and disposal device in one. American use an estimated 100 billion plastic shopping bags per year, and less than ten percent of those get recycled. The vast majority end up in landfills. If you live in an urban area, they’re often observed floating by on a breeze. Besides ending up in landfills, where they take hundreds of years to degrade, they are proving to be a danger to marine life. Animals become entangled in the plastic, or ingest it, mistaking it for food, and suffocate.
Ideally, we wouldn’t use plastic bags at all. When purchasing one or two items, carry them or put them in your purse. Keep canvas or cloth bags in the car for shopping trips. But we all end up with at least a few. There are a few ways to use them in the garden.
- Use them to fill space in planters. Ball up the plastic bags and put them in the bottom of large containers so you won’t have to use so much soil. This will also make the container lighter. To keep the soil from falling down into your plastic “filler,” put a layer of landscape fabric between the plastic bags and your soil.
- Use them to line metal containers that might rust if they were in direct contact with soil. Be sure to poke a few drainage holes in the bottom of the bag before filling with soil, and trim any plastic that would show above the soil line.
- Double up the bags and slide a thick newspaper inside. Instant kneeling pad.
- Use them in the garden shed for keeping small items like cell packs, tiny plastic pots, or hose fittings and nozzles contained and hung out of the way.
Plastic or Metal Coffee Cans
- If you keep the lid, these are perfect for storing seeds and fertilizer. Even without the lid, the’re useful for containing items like hand tools and twine.
- Make a Coffee Can Organizer: Use a piece of two by four lumber, any length you’d like. Attach the coffee cans to the lumber by driving screws through the bottom of the can and into the lumber. A row of the coffee cans attached to the board can hold everthing from garden gloves and tools to seed packets and hose nozzles. Simply mount the whole thing on the garage or shed wall, and you’ll be much more organized.
Reusing common items is easy. Once you start trying to figure out ways to keep trash out of the landfills, you’ll be amazed at how creative you can be. One by one, each of us make a difference. Combined, we can change the world.