Recycling isn't—and shouldn’t be—limited to separating plastic cartons, junk mail, and tin cans for the garbage collector. This Earth Day, think outside the plastic bin, and brainstorm creative ways to convert or re-purpose old, discarded, or unexpected materials into something new and useful. Don't know where to start? Get inspired by one (or all) of the sustainable organizations and initiatives below.
1. The Shopping Center That Sells Recycled/Upcycled Items
The adage “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” rings true in Eskilstuna, Sweden. The metropolis is home to a shopping center, ReTuna Återbruksgalleria, which only sells upcycled, recycled, or sustainable merchandise. (The name ReTuna Återbruksgalleria combines Tuna, which is a nickname for the city; återbruk, which means “reuse” in Swedish; and galleria, which means mall.)
Patrons can drop off objects they no longer want or need at a designated recycling depot. Items that can be repaired are fixed and re-sold in the mall’s nine shops, which offer customers everything from furniture to clothing items to sporting equipment. Goods that can’t be sold are donated to needy institutions or organizations, or recycled.
2. The Mall That Feeds Its Food Waste To Hogs
The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the nation’s largest shopping center—and it’s also vying for the title of “greenest.” In addition to LED parking garage lighting, water-efficient toilets, and thousands of air-purifying plants and trees, the mall annually recycles more than 2400 tons of food waste by donating it to a local hog farm. (If you’re an entrepreneur who’s interested in emulating the MOA’s large-scale food waste strategy, you can check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for getting started here.)
3. The Nonprofit That Transforms Flip-Flop Flotsam Into Art
Around 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Soda bottles, grocery bags, and six-pack rings aren’t the only plastic items polluting the world’s waterways and harming fish, turtles, and other animals: In 1997, marine conservationist Julie Church came across a beach in Kenya that was strewn with discarded flip-flops.
Church noticed children making toys from the debris, and convinced local women to collect, wash, and process the flip-flops into colorful art objects. This initiative grew into Ocean Sole, a fair-trade business that today collects flip-flop flotsam from Kenya's beaches and waters and transforms them into plastic sculptures, accessories, and trinkets. Ocean Sole's goal is to recycle 750,000 flip-flops per year, and the organization also provides business opportunities to women living in city slums and remote coastal areas.
4. The Company That Turns Used Diapers Into Usable Items
Founded in 1989, Knowaste is a Canadian company that recycles diapers and absorbent hygiene products (AHPs), such as baby diapers, feminine hygiene products, and incontinence pads. They've developed a way to strip them of their plastic and fiber, which they then use to make products like composite construction materials, pet litter, and cardboard industrial tubing.
5. THE ECOLOGICAL NONPROFIT THAT COLLECTS HAIR TO CLEAN UP OIL SPILLS
Work at a beauty salon or own a furry pet? Instead of tossing shorn or shed hair into the trash, donate it to Matter of Trust. The San Francisco-based ecological charity’s Clean Wave program collects hair and fur, and uses it to make oil-absorbing mats and stuff containment booms. Hazmat teams use these all-natural tools to clean up after oil spills, and public works departments use them to keep motor oil drip spills out of waterways.
In addition to large-scale donations from beauty salons, barbershops, and groomers, Matter of Trust also accepts smaller contributions from private individuals. If you’re interested in helping out, visit Matter of Trust’s website, register to participate in the nonprofit’s Excess Access recycling program, and follow the instructions to donate. The program’s need for hair and fur ebbs and flows, depending on the volume of recent donations. But in the case of an emergency oil spill, all donations are welcome. (Cases in point: Matter of Trust’s hair mats and booms were used to help clean up after both the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.)
6. The Nonprofit That Re-Purposes Old Crayons Into New Ones
As art supplies go, crayons are relatively cheap, making it all too easy and inexpensive to toss scuzzy, broken, and worn-down wax stubs into the trash and purchase new ones. But crayons are typically made from paraffin wax and aren’t biodegradable—so to keep old art tools from clogging landfills, a Northern California-based nonprofit called The Crayon Initiative collects unwanted crayons from restaurants and schools and melts them down to make fresh ones. Then, they donate the re-purposed goods to children’s hospitals. Family restaurants and schools can find out how to organize crayon donation drives online.
A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current data.