Press "Enter" to skip to content

Creative Ways You Can Recycle Through Upcycling

Over the last few months of safer-at-home orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people have had a considerable amount of time to assess their homes, needs, and stuff. Whether you have started pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle, or you have an urge to get creative as you clean out closets, garages, and garden sheds, upcycling is the ultimate way to recycle what would otherwise end up in landfills or overloaded municipal recycling systems. Plus, the process often gives you a chance to get organized or redecorate without a trip to a store. Read on as we reveal some of our favorite ideas about what you can recycle and how to upcycle your way through your latest decluttering efforts.


Before you try to sell your under-used armoire to a consignment shop, consider giving it a new life as an upscale bar, secret bookcase, or hidden office. It might be hard to imagine initially, but upcycling the unit may transform it from a nuisance into something well-loved and much-used. The editors at Martha Stewart Living are big fans of repurposing an older armoire into what they refer to as a “‘Barmoire’ Cabinet.” From drab to fabulous, the Magazine suggests recycling the armoire into a dazzling entertainment conversation piece that also offers a practical upside. Martha Stewart Living reveals that the revised piece could be a DIY dream; “this armoire is tricked out with everything you need to really shake things up as a home mixologist—liquor, glasses, the works—by taking the basic linen closet, painting it inside and out, and giving it a stylish backsplash with smoky mirrored tiles.” 

With the addition of some strategically placed shelves and a new coat of eco-friendly paint, you also can create a beautiful, wonderfully deep bookcase out of your under-used armoire. When you close the doors, you have a stylish piece that would work in any room of the house. When you open them, voila! Your library is revealed. Do you need a work or crafting space that can be closed when it is not in use? New shelving and a fold-down table attached to the door, similar to the bookcase desk highlighted by Martha Stewart Living, gives you a fully-functional work-from-home (or virtual school) space that easily can be tucked away at the end of the day.  


Are your pantry or garage shelves filled with coolers that have long been replaced with other models for your future camping adventures? You might be surprised to find out that, typically, you cannot recycle plastic coolers. The building process involves multiple layers of several different types of plastic, and, therefore, recycling becomes an expensive and burdensome process for most local sites. The good news is that even if their seals are broken, they can be upcycled into something useful. Midwest Living suggests popping off the top and transforming the broken cooler into a very “chill” container garden filled with “flowering tobacco, star flower, hedgerow crane’ s-bill, Helichrysum and blue daze,” as one of many possibilities.  


Can you recycle a worn-down dresser? Yes, unless it has been painted or varnished. Of course, you can upcycle it with any number of decorative techniques from decoupage to a make-over that involves re-staining the top and framing, painting the drawer fronts (perhaps in the popular “Classic Blue,” Pantone’s “Color of the Year”) and adding new hardware. If the furniture piece is genuinely taking up too much space and is no longer useful in its current form, consider upcycling the drawers alone. Midwest Living raves about the benefits of creating a charming miniature garden in each repurposed drawer. You also can turn the drawer on its side and hang it to create a boho wall cabinet – just add an extra shelf in the middle for additional storage and remove the hardware. You can even create a twist on Martha Stewart Living‘s much-loved “Garden-Shed Crate Cabinets.” Instead of crates, you can stand up your drawers or lay them on their sides and stack them to create a network of useful storage in your garden shed, garage, or patio. As the Magazine remarks: “Once you‘ve established a layout, connect [them] with wood screws and collars near the corners. Use cup hooks to hang smaller items, such as trowels, funnels, and scissors.” 


If you are wondering what you can recycle in your overloaded garage, you may be surprised to find out that your old ladder, be it metal or wooden, can be upcycled in some remarkable ways. If you have long debated starting a small container garden, your no-longer-useful ladder can have a new life as a ladder planter. With troughs that you can purchase or make yourself out of old containers, “[wooden] ladder planters … provide an easy way to achieve vertical gardening in small spaces such as patios,” according to Midwest Living. Just be sure that whatever flowers, grasses, or herbs you plant thrive in partial shade conditions. Similarly, the editors of the Magazine advocate for transitioning an older “stepladder into a garden focal point with a coat of bright paint, then decorate the steps with your favorite potted combinations in cans.”  

Are you hoping to repurpose something to add a burst of industrial chic charm to your bedroom or guest room? Martha Stewart Living suggests swapping a small nightstand in favor of your extraneous stepladder. The Magazine explains: “The four wide rungs of an extra stepladder provide a steady spot for a row of books as well as the necessary alarm clock and a reading lamp.”   


In most cases, lampshades can be recycled if you separate each of the primary materials before placing them in the recycling bin. However, the best way to recycle a drab lampshade is to upcycle it. You do not have to be a DIY expert to remake your shade in a way that highlights your room’s color schemes or adds a pop of color to an otherwise neutral space. According to the editors at Southern Living, all you need is a bit of acrylic paint, some painter’s tape, scissors, and measuring tape to create a vividly striped shade that makes your room sing. The Magazine “[recommends] using a paper lampshade for cleaner lines when you pull the tape away, but you can also upcycle an old linen shade….”  

Mason and Canning Jars

If you are pondering what you can recycle from your growing mason jar collection, know that most of the jars will be accepted at your local recycler. Keep in mind that the rubber rims that are part of the lids should be removed before depositing them in your blue bins. Before dropping them off, think about whether they can be upcycled into useful storage bins, even outside the kitchen. If canning isn’t in your future, you may want to fill the extra jars with a variety of pasta, beans, and rice. The tight seal of the jars keeps the contents fresh, and the clear jars are terrific for stacking while making it easy to identify the contents at a glance. As canning jars are made to be heat-resistant, try dropping in a tea light to add a glow to your patio table, bathroom vanity, or living space. Mason jars, as well as empty candle jars, can become delightfully rustic vases or even planters, according to Real Simple. And, if your work-from-home space needs organizing, it may be time to grab one (or several) of your empty jars. As the editors at Real Simple suggest: “Use larger containers to hold taller items like pens, pencils, and scissors, and shorter ones to store erasers and paper clips.” You can even add a coat or two of glass-specific spray paint to your new storage jars to bring a pop of color to your workstation.   


Real Simple reveals that old mirrors “aren’t recyclable through most municipal recyclers, because the chemicals on the glass can’t be mixed with glass bottles and jars.” Don’t despair. Whether you have an extra mirror tucked away in the closet or an older, scratched mirror hiding in the garage, it can enjoy a surprisingly useful life as a decorative chalkboard. Protect the frame with painter’s tape before applying a couple of coats of chalkboard paint to the mirror. Southern Living adores this as an addition to kitchens as a menu board, a place to write appointment reminders, or grocery lists. Kids will love being able to add their wish lists in vibrant chalk. As the Magazine reveals: “The sky’s the limit when it comes to scale – this DIY can be done on any size of picture frame or mirror.” In the future, if you are planning larger events, recycled mirrors can be used as everything from a welcome agenda of events for weddings to table number markers at reunion dinners or outdoor receptions. 

Shredded White Paper

Depending on where you live, recycling centers may not allow you to recycle your shredded white paper as is because it could fly out of the blue bins during collection or the recycling dump. While you can place the shredded paper into another recyclable container or bag, you may be surprised to learn that you can use the shredded paper in your garden, even if you aren’t doing a full-scale compost bin. Shredded white paper can be used around the base of your plants, vegetable, and trees as a mulch – just be sure to use white paper rather than heavily dyed paper. The shredded paper mulch is also effective for anyone trying their hand at indoor container gardening. It’s an easy, free, and environmentally friendly approach to mulching that does not require a trip to the garden center.


Are you staring into your closet wondering what you can recycle? First, as recommended by Real Simple, “check with your local recycling service to see if they accept textiles to recycle into stuffing, upholstery, or insulation.” If you are hoping for a home-based solution to your closet clean-out, you will be delighted to discover how versatile your family’s old t-shirts can be. If you are handy with a sewing machine or particularly quick with a needle and thread, graphic tees can find new life as fabric for pillow covers and tote bags. While consignment of old concert t-shirts was popular for a while, you may be inspired to cut squares from the tour line-ups and graphics as the basis of a perfectly personalized quilt representing your favorite bands and a lot of concert-going memories.

Wine Corks

Plastic corks should not be recycled, nor should they be added to your compost. However, Real Simple confirms that after enjoying your favorite bottle of vino, you can place “standard corks in a compost bin.” If you and your family are feeling creative, those standard wine corks can be upcycled in some delightful ways. Wine cork mats only require a thin box to act as a temporary frame, glue, and your used corks. Because cork dries quickly, your new wine cork mat will be a great place for kids to take off wet boots or as a funky bathmat. 

You can glue corks to a firm backing like poster board, and then frame your design to create a unique corkboard for your home office. If you have enjoyed visiting wineries in your past travels, consider displaying those special corks in glass vases or lay similarly sized corks on their sides and adhere them to the top of a TV tray table to give it a new, fun look, perfect for your next casual happy hour.