How To Recycle Plastic Bags

Let’s talk polyethylene, or plastic bags. They’re stretchable plastic bags, or film, that are #2 or #4 plastics. Amazingly, most people don’t recycle them, but you can. These things just never go away, so doing your best to not acquire them in the first place is a tall order, but well worth it. And then, reusing them as much as you can until you have to recycle them is your best course of action.

Most supermarkets have a recycle bin where you can take your polyethylene or plastic bags. The most common polyethylene bags are plastic bags that you get at the grocery store, but there are many more items that you might otherwise throw away that can be recycled in polyethylene recycling. Let’s review them in a simple list, below.

When you take your bags to get recycled, simply stuff the rest of the polyethylene from your life into that bag to get recycled, too. But please remember: Recycling plastic bags is not a closed-loop system. Best to think about ways to avoid it altogether.

Ok, Here’s the List of Plastic Bags/Film That Can Go In Your Plastic Bag Recycling Bin

Grocery Bags: On our island, we’re lucky these things have been banned. So, they’re few and far between.

Bread Bags: Some bread comes in polyethylene. Be sure to recycle them when you’re done reusing them. And if you want to reduce this plastic altogether, try my fail-proof bread recipe. It’s a staple in our home.

Air Bags for Shipping and Bubblewrap: Definitely reuse these, or offer them up on your local Buy Nothing group. People and businesses who ship items often are always happy to take them off your hands.

IMG_6399.JPG

Ziploc Bags: If you use resealable bags that have those zipperlike locks on them, just rip that hard block off of your bag and recycle the bag. I’m proud to say I haven’t bought resealable bags in years because I clean, dry, and reuse what I have.

Garment Bags: Man, that’s a lot of polyethylene. Maybe your dry cleaner will take them back if you keep them clean.

Mail Order Clothing Bags: My husband works for a clothing company and we get samples from them every week. They all come in polyethylene bags. Bothers me.

img_6400

Beverage Shrink Wrap: These are usually clean and can just be thrown right into recycling. This excessive packaging is disturbing.

img_6401

Newspaper Bags: Digital subscriptions are looking a lot more eco-friendly these days.

Magazine Covers: Be sure to remove the paper address label and recycle that paper label, or throw it in your compost.

Frozen Food Bags: It’s super important that you wash and dry these bags so there’s no food residue inside.

img_6402

Cereal Box Liners: According to this website, you can recycle them.

Toilet Paper Roll Packaging: This is the one we can’t seem to avoid. I don’t like buying individually-paper-wrapped toilet paper rolls.

Paper Towel Packaging: Or, just skip them altogether.

Individual Kleenex Tissue Wrap: I found this in the woods on a hike. Using a handkerchief can go a long way toward reducing these kinds of plastics.

img_6404

Produce Bags: I reuse mine, taking them back to the store, and no one seems to care.

Plastic Shipping Envelopes: Just remove the sticky label. We reuse these, too.

img_6397

Trash Bags: These have to be clean and dry.

Wood Chip Plastic Baling: We used to use wood chips as bedding for our chickens (but now we use shredded paper.) This stuff is polyethylene! If you make sure it’s clean and dry, it can be recycled.

Little Hardware Bags For Nuts, Bolts, Screws, Etc: These little bags are what the hardware store provides for you when you buy bits of hardware in bulk.

img_6398

Furniture Wrap: This is film, and it should be recycled.

img_6403

What can’t be recycled? My rule of thumb is, if you can stretch your thumb through it, it’s polyethylene. But don’t include Saran Wrap/cling wrap. Apparently, that’s a different plastic (until recently, it was PVC.) If your plastic item crinkles, it’s not recyclable and you’ll have to throw it away. The risk of putting the wrong plastic into your recycling is that the recycler will reject the entire recycling container-full of bags. So, be sure you’re sending the right stuff to get recycled.

I’m a big believer in every office and classroom having a polyethylene bag recycling area, so long as a volunteer will take it to the supermarket for recycling every week or so. Imagine the impact you could have by doing this? It would reduce the waste-to-landfill by a lot, and save the school and office a bundle in solid waste pickup fees.

What can you add to my list?

 

The Sky Is Falling! A Fine Line Between Avian Life and Death

“Mommy! A bird just fell out of the sky!”

A Stunned Young Mallard, Post Power Line Collision © Liesl Clark

A Stunned Young Mallard, Post Collision © Liesl Clark

I ran to see what my daughter and her friend had found, thinking a small bird had simply landed on the beach. But the sight was a sobering surprise for us all. A small juvenile mallard was heaving deep breaths of stress as blood dripped from its beak.

“It fell out of the sky?” I asked.

No shots had been heard, so it hadn’t been shot at. We looked up and found the answer some 50 feet above. Power lines etched their impression upon a clear blue sky. This little duck met its demise with a fine line suspended between its nesting area and food source, just across the road.

We were at one of our favorite beaches, Bainbridge Island’s Pleasant Beach. Across a little causeway from the beach is an estuary, known as Schel Chelb, where waterfowl thrive and raise their young. It was a bright winter day and this little critter’s flock had taken off from the wetlands to fly over the road to the bay just beyond, in search of food. Sadly, the small duck never saw the power lines that separate home from fodder for these feathered friends. It was flying right into the sun, and likely never saw what it hit.

The Power Lines That Separate The Nesting Grounds From the Bay © Liesl Clark

The Power Lines That Separate The Nesting Grounds From the Bay © Liesl Clark

According to a 2014 article published at the NIH, an estimated 8 and 57 million birds in the U.S. are killed by such collisions. Globally, collisions with power lines may cause more than one billion annual bird deaths.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a manual for best practices in preventing bird deaths due to collisions with power lines. I’ve tried to find it online but have not had any success as all links to it are broken. An April 2005 report, available through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provides some guidance for reducing the risk of deadly bird collisions with power lines:

“Marking wires and conductors with white wire spirals and black crossed bands in one study reduced mortality by up to 75 percent. Other potentially helpful devices include bird flappers and diverters, such as the Firefly and the BirdMark, which swivel in the wind, glow in the dark, and use fluorescent colors designed specifically for bird vision.”

Why isn’t this location a priority for our utilities to install such preventative measures? I find it ironic that a protected wildlife area, this man-made restored wetlands, is situated next to power lines that are bringing about avian deaths. Surely this isn’t the only case of duck-meets-powerline at this popular duck breeding ground.

Shel Chelb Estuary: Where The Ducks Are © Liesl Clark

Schel Chelb Estuary: Where The Ducks Are © Liesl Clark

My daughter described the incident: “We heard a big thud. So we didn’t know what it was. I looked over and the duck was on the ground on its side. It was breathing really deeply, its sides going up and down. It closed its eyes and then opened them again several seconds later. After a minute it flipped itself over and stood upright and walked a little bit. But then it just sat still.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 11.46.31 AM

When I arrived, we could see the blood on the mallard’s beak. It was clearly stunned and taking stock of what to do next, like a hummingbird having just hit a windowpane. This little one plummeted 50-60 feet to the beach below, but it was still alive. I was able to capture this one image before the duck flew low, with difficulty, back across the road to the estuary. We followed it to the estuary side and believe it may survive amongst its little flock of mallards and other waterfowl.

IMG_0788

That Fine Line (Drawing By Our 10 Year Old) © Cleo Clark-Athans

We didn’t know why we wanted to go the beach yesterday, other than to feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. But it was no ordinary day for us at the shore. A silently suffering young mallard brought us the bittersweet gift of awareness of a hazard to her species. Have you witnessed such an event? How hard do you think it will be to raise this issue with our utility company and ask them to take the necessary measures to help our friend?

Mapping Plastic: The Lost Coast

Exploring Bainbridge Island's Lost Coast © Liesl Clark

Exploring Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast © Liesl Clark

Who owns the shoreline?

This is the question we’re asking after walking one of the most beautiful stretches of Bainbridge Island’s coastline. The mile-long stretch of nearly house-free shore had very few plastics along it, too. Does this prove that the plastics are washing down into our waters from our homes? Possibly.

Kitchen Sink Scrubby. They're Made of Plastic. © Liesl Clark

Kitchen Sink Scrubby. They’re Made of Plastic Fibers. Try a Plastic-Free Alternative. © Liesl Clark

This gorgeous stretch of beach lies along the southwest side of the island, skirting Port Orchard Bay and leading up toward the Poulsbo Marina in the distance. There’s about 2 miles of water between this shore and Bremerton’s shoreline, and the tidal currents move through here pretty swiftly, leaving little ability for plastics to make purchase ashore. Yet they still do.

Water Skiing Anyone? © Liesl Clark

Water Skiing Anyone? © Liesl Clark

The Lost Coast starts with a hike down the Close Property Trail to the rocky shore. It’s a classic Northwest coastal hike through old douglas firs and ferns, the trail switch-backing down the steep green scape to the water. We turned right and headed north, my two children and one of their good friends. Everyone had a bag in hand, to pick up plastics, or pretty shells and rocks. We had a feeling this stretch of shore wouldn’t have many plastics because we come here often and only find the occasional offender.

Hiking Through Ferns on the Close Property Trail © Liesl Clark

Hiking Through Ferns on the Close Property Trail © Liesl Clark

A high bank leaves jungle for us to enjoy, with a few properties that have carved out a beach presence, stashing their plastic lawn furniture in the brambles. It’ll only be a matter of a few storms before the plastic furniture is set free onto the billowing seas. Some kayaks were imaginatively lashed to trees and a couple of landowners had cool pulley-elevators for getting people and gear down to their stretch of paradise.

The Ever-Present Marine Rope, Made of Plastic © Liesl Clark

The Ever-Present Marine Rope, Made of Plastic © Liesl Clark

But after about an hour, our walk was cut short by a sign indicating we couldn’t pass.

No Trespassing!? © Liesl Clark

No Trespassing!? © Liesl Clark

Can the beach, even at the lowest mean tide, be privately owned? According to The Public Trust Doctrine, passed down from English Common Law, we have the right, especially at extreme low tides, to walk shoreline beaches, to recreate along the shore’s edge. The thinking is that below the common high tide mark, the land is not privately owned. But some homeowners beg to differ and the state of Washington, in particular, has no final judgement on the matter. Can we cross this section of beach at the lowest winter tide possible to continue our beach plastics survey? Or do we have to take up a friend’s offer to ferry us by row boat past this 100 yard stretch of beach to the other side? Fletcher Bay is a narrow residential bay, one of the significant watersheds of our island, that could hold clues to the question of where our ocean plastics are coming from.

Nursery Plant Tags are a common Beach Plastic © Liesl Clark

Nursery Plant Tags are a common Beach Plastic © Liesl Clark

Most people think the plastics in our oceans comes from boats. We’re convinced it comes from our homes. Case in point: Those plastic tags you have in a nursery plant pot, giving you the latin name of your purchase and growing instructions. Do we find nursery plants on boats? No. This culprit has washed down a watershed into the salty sea and we plucked it from Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast.

Landed Umbrella © Liesl Clark

Landed Umbrella © Liesl Clark

If it has plastic in it, even if a small percentage of it is plastic, you’ll find it on the beach. I don’t think there’s anything made of plastic that we haven’t found washed ashore. The tally from our Lost Coast walk included, shoe soles, lots of styrofoam pieces, motor oil containers, plastic toys, and easily a hundred meters of marine rope.

If you’d like to join us on a leg of our circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island, to see for yourself, just let us know in the comments.

Bainbridge Island's Lost Coast. The Most Plastic-Free Stretch of Beach on the Island. © Liesl Clark

Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast. The Most Plastic-Free Stretch of Beach on the Island. © Liesl Clark

Read about the previous leg on our circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island.

Mapping Plastic: First Days of Our Journey

Even Point White Pier ain’t plastic-free. We found Chapstick tubes lodged in the cracks. Photo © Liesl Clark

Our journey started on a windy day. Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island to map the plastic on its shores has started off like any other beach walk where we tease plastic detritus from tall grasses, seaweed, and huge boulders. Our friends, Rebecca Rockefeller, David Dale Campbell, and their daughters met us at Pleasant Beach, aka Lynwood Center Beach, and we headed south at the day’s lowest tide in hopes of reaching Point White Pier by dark. But we hit a snag.

Rich Passage is a narrow waterway providing access between Seattle and Bremerton for ferries, submarines and naval boats from the nearby seaports. Strong tidal conditions prevail and a winter shoreline walk along the Bainbridge side of the passage is impossible. Lined entirely with bulkheads, houses built right up to the coast, Rich Passage isn’t actually passable on foot. Our map here shows the section, right at Point White, that we had to skip, but we’ll return at a minus tide in the spring to complete as much of it as possible and collect whatever plastics are plastered to the human-made coast.

Legs 1 and 2 of the Bainbridge Island Plastic Mapping Project. Our Track is in Blue.

It’s a 53-mile circumnavigation we’re undertaking and we’ve done about 2. Beginnings are all about logistics, so the fact that we managed to track our progress by GPS and map it for you here is a huge feat.

Rebecca Rockefeller Inspecting “The Armored Coast,” Photo © Liesl Clark

We resumed our route on the west side of Point White 2 days later and cleaned the armored coast of plastic to Point White Pier, a landmark on Bainbridge where the fishing is good and summer swimmers hurl themselves into Puget Sound’s frigid waters.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “One of the largest estuaries in the United States, Puget Sound has roughly 2,500 miles of sheltered coastline, about one-third of which is armored. An increasing regional population and rising sea level will likely increase the pressure for additional shoreline armoring. Bulkheads, seawalls, and other armoring structures protect shoreline properties from damage and loss due to erosion, but armoring can also affect the nearshore habitat that is so important to restoring and preserving the health of Puget Sound.”

The man-made basalt armor of Crystal Springs. Plastics are jammed around the boulders. Photo © Liesl Clark

We see the daily affect of the sea upon the armored coastlines we walk and know climate change and sea level rise will ultimately win out. And studies are proving that armored coasts cause increased erosion on neighboring shorelines and adversely affect wildlife habitats. For us plastic pluckers, the armored coastlines mean there’s little plastic to be procured as there’s no true high tide line. Those plastics will have to deposit themselves somewhere else.

Rope Is Easily Caught in Man-Made Boulder-Strewn Coastline, Photo © Liesl Clark

Marine rope and fishing line is easily found behind and around boulders placed along Puget Sound’s shorelines, a barrier between sea and land but a catchment sieve for ropes and lines. We approach these coastlines with steely knives, our tools to free plastic filament ropes so we can remove them permanently in an effort to prevent future entanglement of marine species. The ropes placed by people to moor or tie down their boats, of course, are left alone. Most ropes we free, we’re able to simply pull from the rocks or pick up from the high tide line.

Some marine rope is reused by our researchers. Photo © Liesl Clark

Every beach walk brings surprises, sometimes in the form of items our intrepid children would like to keep — gifts from the sea — or bizarre relics in plastic that have no purpose on a beach. The new-looking basketball was a surprise, until we found a second one and realized they can’t be uncommon. Then the plastic spongy pig thing brought shouts of joy.

A Pig on the Beach? Photo © Liesl Clark

What the? Photo © Liesl Clark

But it was the white plastic replica sculpture of “The Last Supper” that won first prize this time.

“The Last Supper” on the Beach. Photo © Liesl Clark

What weird stuff have you found on the beach?

Our beach plastics survey would be remiss if we didn’t highlight the usual suspects, like balloons. This is one of the hundreds we’ve picked up in the last year alone.

Balloon and Pool Noodle Washed Up On Bainbridge Island. Photo © Liesl Clark

If you haven’t noticed, balloons blow, and when they have a ribbon attached to them that ribbon gets wrapped up in seaweed or around the necks of curious seals. We’ve seen countless images of seals entangled in plastic. Balloons and their attendant ribbons contribute to this problem. Please consider alternatives to balloons for your next birthday party to help prevent their inevitable migration to the sea. We don’t buy gift ribbon anymore, now that we’ve seen how much of it lines our shores.

Inner Plastic Lining of a Mylar Balloon, Washed Ashore. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Tally So Far:
We’re inventorying our island plastics by item. And so far, the most populous plastics are plastic bottle caps, styrofoam chunks, earplugs, construction zone tape (37 feet), fireworks, pvc piping, snack food bags & wrappers, plastic drink bottles, styrofoam food trays, tape, and 209 feet of marine rope. We’ve recycled the plastic bottles along with any glass bottles and aluminum cans we pick up along the way — just putting what’s plucked from the sea back into our materials economy.

Items of Note?
Three plastic wreath frames presented themselves on a high shoreline bank. In an upcoming post we’ll expose what ecologists say about the affects of throwing your yard clippings and organic waste into the sea. Grass clippings are not good for our oceans, yet we’re finding that Bainbridge Island residents are piling their yard waste and organics along their sea walls so they can be pulled out to sea with high tides and storm events. Hence the wreath frames, nursery tape, plastic plant pots, and those plastic tags that tell you what kind of plant you’ve bought are found all over Puget Sound. If we find things that can be reused, we put them back into circulation. So, we’re proud to note that the two of the plastic wreath frames were shared on our local Buy Nothing group and an island neighbor will use them for upcoming holiday wreath-making. I was inspired by her enthusiasm and reused one for a wreath I made of rosemary clippings from one of our plants. We’re also collecting all golf balls, tennis balls, and beach toys to be reused by local friends.

On a lighter side, we found a very old and rusty plastic lighter from The Derby lounge in Ketchican, Alaska!

Want to join us, physically or virtually, in our adventure around Bainbridge Island on our Plastic Mapping expedition? No need for us to do this alone! Drop us a line in the comments and we’ll arrange a date.

Mapping Plastic: A Circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island

Many have done it by sailboat, motorboat, even kayaks. One person recently swam it. But how many people have hiked around Bainbridge Island? I mean all the way around, skirting its shores, circling the entire landmass like a May pole?

Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island To Map Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

The 53-mile circumnavigation is precisely the journey we’re embarking upon, but it’s not just a walk in the rock-strewn, slimy, barnacle-laden park, nor is it a pristine walk on the beach. This journey has a critical element: We’re picking up all the man-made trash we see on the shoreline along the way. What sorts of debris are washing up on this 36-square-mile island, 8 miles off the coast of Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound?

Circumnavigating An Island’s Shores Bring New Light to Single Use Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

We’re no strangers to beach debris, more accurately described as “everyday plastics.” My friend and co-founder at The Buy Nothing Project, Rebecca Rockefeller, and I have traversed many island beaches picking up plastics. Indeed, we’ve spent months inventorying the buggers, listing them by item. We’ve created disturbing art about our beach plastics, have conducted beach pick-ups and art projects with local classrooms, and founded a social movement with an eye toward addressing that first of the 3 “R’s,” REDUCING the amount of plastics we consume in the first place. If we just shared what we already had, rather than buying new, wouldn’t that have impact?  If we’ve learned one thing in the last 5 years of research it’s this: If it’s made of plastic, it will end up in our waters.

Beachdebris, Robbins Island, MA, Photo © Liesl Clark

The obvious solution to our dependence upon plastics is to find reasonable alternatives and obvious reuse solutions and convince people to choose those over buying new plastics. We aim to show people in innovative ways how plastics will never go away and are ubiquitous in our environment. Hence, we collect those plastics we find washing up on our beaches and determine where they’re coming from. What percentage are single-use plastics like straws, syringes, and water bottles and tampons? What percentage are coming from the fishing and shipping industries, from construction projects, and from our own homes and cars? The only way to find out is to pick up a sampling from every shoreline on our island, to prove they’re on every beach, washed down our watersheds or blown ashore by the prevailing winds.

A few hundred yards’ collection of plastic, Photo © Liesl Clark

Bainbridge Island is like any landmass, encircled by the waters of Puget Sound, some beaches more exposed to currents and wind drift than others. We see this circumnavigation as a sort of metaphor for all islands, indeed all continents, with watersheds and beaches dumping and receiving debris over time.

Storm Drains Go Unfiltered and Unchecked on Bainbridge Island, Photo © Liesl Clark

My online search for the earliest pioneers to have circumnavigated our beloved island brought up a single result, and an ironic one at that: Bruce Barcott, writer and friend. We had no idea Bruce had taken on the journey, let alone that he wrote about it in Backpacker Magazine. He even self published a book about it, having also mapped his route on Google Earth in an incredible interactive tour-de-island-force worth checking out. Bruce’s map will be our baseline, a critical resource to discover interesting shoreline features as well as the ins and outs of the inlets, coves and private properties potentially off-limits to hikers like us. But if we’re doing some good (picking up pollution) will we be barred from passing? Due to tide constraints, Bruce apparently didn’t actually complete his full circumnavigation, opting for inland trails instead. We’re going to try our hand at completing a full circumambulation.

I first met Bruce Barcott in Seattle at the offices of Alpine Ascents International. My husband, Pete Athans, and I, along with our 1 and 3 year olds, had just moved to the area from north of Boston, one of the furthest points on the continent away from Seattle. Bruce and Pete were hired by Alpine Ascents International to assist them in procuring a coveted mountaineering concession on Mount Rainier. Two years later, when we were headed for a month to Nepal, Bruce and his family were looking for a home to occupy while house-hunting on the island. They house-sat for us and quickly found a home for themselves on the island. Bruce, in an effort to get to know the island first-hand, decided to hike around its shores, mapping his progress on his iphone.

We, too, will employ iphones and our trusty GPS to log in waypoints and document our progress. Other essential tools will include reusable bags, backpacks, and haul bags for collecting plastics, strapping the big pieces to our backs, and a knife for cutting marine rope and fishing line from rocks and washed-up tree trunks. Our cameras will record specific plastics that marine biologist friends are interested in documenting, and the essential iphone app, Tide Chart.

Plenty of Pens on the Beach, Photo © Liesl Clark

With a population of 23,000 and 36-square-miles of land, our island demographics prove that there are approximately 834 people per square mile on this speck of Northwest terra firma. That’s a lot denser than I would’ve thought, but significantly less than Seattle’s 7,251 people per square mile. We’re all contributing to the plastics that are making their way down from our homes, cars, and businesses to our seas. And our islandround journey is yet another means to figure out where it’s all coming from, why, and how we can stop it.

Come Help Us Inventory Bainbridge Island’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you’re on Bainbridge and want to join us, please contact us and we’ll coordinate days and times to meet up for a leg of the journey. We’d love to have your eyes, hands, and backs for the recovery of human-made debris from the sea. We welcome classrooms, community groups, and all our island friends on this journey. And when this encircling of our island is done, we’ll welcome help in assessing the inventory of documented plastics in our island to determine where it’s coming from and come up with ideas for reducing it in the first place.

It’s winter storm season, and we expect some sobering results and strong shoreline winds but hopefully we’ll encounter some unanticipated surprises as we map our collective plastics, coming closer to uncovering the truth behind the flow of synthetic polymers into our seas.

Voyager Montessori School’s Rainbow of Puget Sound’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

 

Post-Holiday Zero Waste Living

Carefree Holiday Fun in Zero Waste Style

Carefree Holiday Snowball Fun in Zero Waste Style © Liesl Clark

Some reliable sources say Americans produce 25% more waste over the year-end holidays than we do the rest of the year. I’m not surprised, given the household waste-management we’re undergoing this time of year. Our consumption, through gift giving/receiving and party-throwing, is at an all-time high.

Trimming the Tree, Photo © Liesl Clark

What steps can we take to make this year a game-changer, reducing our impact at years’ end? Here are some easy zero-waste practices that should make you feel good:

  1. Recycle Your Live-Cut Christmas Tree: Most communities have tree recycling options available. Boy Scouts in some communities conduct drives to collect trees and chip them up into compost, for example. Other communities will allow you to put your tree in your yard waste bins.
  2. Reuse Your Live Christmas Tree: We throw ours in our brush pile and then cut it up for kindling once the wood has cured. But we’ve created a list of 15 reuses for your Christmas tree if you’re interested.
  3. Take a moment to turn off your power, enjoy a few hours of power disconnection with family for introspection and connection. We do this for an entire day and the appreciation for each other, and the magic of slowing down comes back  into our lives.

    Ace Hardware is Doing Good Things in Our Hometown © Liesl Clark

    Ace Hardware is Doing Good Things in Our Hometown © Liesl Clark

  4. Recycle your broken holiday/tree lights: When your lights stop working (and, sadly, these things are so poorly made their working life is not very long), don’t throw them away. Most communities have a local option for recycling string lights. Ace Hardware, for example, is our local drop point on our island. But if you can’t find a local venue, you can send your lights to Light Source, in Texas, where they sell used string lights for recycling and give the proceeds back to charity. Or, better yet, collect a few from friends and neighbors and send the tangled mess in a larger box so you know you’ve diverted more than your own from your waste stream. The Refining Company in Medford, OR also recycles holiday lights. Recycling string lights is a booming business in China and although the practices aren’t the most environmentally-sound, thousands of tons of string lights are kept out of our landfills. The Atlantic has a must-read article about the recycling of our string lights in China to mine out the copper wiring inside. After reading the article, I swore we’d never buy string lights again. We receive thousands of unwanted string lights at our local summer community auction, so our family retrieves a few of the unwanted strings from there each summer and use them until they stop working, which, sadly, isn’t very long. IMG_0769 copy
  5. Stockpile your styrofoam and recycle or reuse: Styrofoam is the single most prolific plastic material found on our beaches. In some communities, it has been banned. If you received styrofoam as part of a gift this holiday season, consider yourself the future steward of this highly toxic material. Finding your local recycling option for year-round styrofoam stewardship is the single best thing you could do for the environment this season. In the Seattle area, for example, a free drop-off location in Kent is the place. In the meantime, ask your local zero waste group if there’s a nearby store, like Bay Hay and Feed on Bainbridge Island, that conducts drives to collect the stuff so it doesn’t end up in our waters.
  6. Save your Christmas cards for repurposing: You can always recycle the cards you get from friends in your paper recycling bin. But a fun activity is to cut off the side with the writing and save the card with its attractive artwork for future homemade gift tags. Some people use them to create wreaths for next year, too. And I found a pretty bunting idea for displaying them on your hearth.
  7. Save all ribbon for reuse: Ribbons are made of plastic and survive in our oceans unscathed for years. We’re always surprised to find ribbon from birthday balloons wrapped up in seaweed (they are also known to entangle baby seals, sea otters and sea turtles) and once we break them free from the wrack line debris, the ribbon is as good as new. Save the ribbon you receive on gifts and give the gift of life to our marine creatures by not buying more of it. If you reuse what you have, and receive in the future, you’ll never need to buy more ribbon again. Giving and receiving is cyclical like that.
  8. Find a spot to store re-usable tape: This is a true insider’s tip. There’s plenty of tape and stickers that will peel right off a bag or shiny package and it, too, can be reused. The trick is to have a convenient spot in your home where you keep it. My friend Rebecca puts hers on the side of the fridge for the kids to access easily (kids go through gobs of tape.) We put our reclaimed tape on the inside of a closet door where office supplies are kept. Family members know that’s the community tape dispenser. We haven’t bought new tape in months.
  9. Save what wrapping paper you can for reuse: You don’t need an explanation for this. It’s yet another way to see how reuse can save you money. Most wrapping paper can’t be recycled because of the materials used to make it. Composting or burning it, too, isn’t recommended because of the toxins involved. Because we are committed to not buying new wrapping paper, what do we use? We make beautiful cloth gift bags and give them to friends and family for reuse. We recycle our children’s art as wrapping paper. We use pretty cloth as wrapping paper in the Japanese style of wrapping. We keep items in their shipping boxes and decorate the boxes with ribbon we’ve found on our beaches or plastic marine debris we’ve recovered as a reminder of our mission in the first place. These packages below are how our children creatively wrap their gifts in found items from our home or the beach:

10) Pass on your unwanted faux tree through The Buy Nothing Project or give to Goodwill: Thousands of plastic trees end up in the landfill after the holidays. These aren’t meant to be single-use items. If you need to get rid of yours, pass it on to Goodwill, sell it on Craigs List, or Buy Nothing it.

11) Don’t throw away your unwanted or broken items or toys: One of the single-most satisfying activities you can do with your family is create a workspace where you can repair the items you received over the holiday that were made to break within the first 6 months’ (or sometimes 6 hours) of use.

Send us your stories of what broke, and how you fixed it! We’re looking for inspiration from you, stories about how you defied the odds and came up with a smart solution to repair or repurpose an item so it could be diverted from a landfill and have a new life.

12) Thank your tree: And finally, a special thank you movie in tribute to the pesticide-free, sustainably grown US Forest Service tree we weeded from the dense thicket on the tree-laden slopes of the Olympic National Forest:

15 Reuses For Your Live Christmas Tree

Each year's Christmas tree is reused on our property. © Liesl Clark

Each year’s Christmas tree is reused on our property. © Liesl Clark

Before you send your live Christmas tree out on the curb for yard waste pickup or to the Boy Scouts for recycling, there may be another use that’s perfect for you and your tree.

  1. Kindling: Throw your live tree in your brush pile, let it cure, and then cut it up for kindling for next fall.
  2. Save Your Perennials from Freezing: Cover your perennial beds with your cut up pine boughs to either insulate them from future sub-zero weather, or for preserving the piled up snow that’s already on them. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles can kill your best perennials.
  3. Trivets and Coasters: Cut 1” disks from the trunk to make trivets or coasters. It’s a fun project for the kids
  4. Bird Feeder: Prop up your tree outside in the back yard and trim it with strings of popcorn and birdseed ornaments so your wild birds can have a winter feast.
  5. Do Something Really Cool With Your Tree: Fabien Cappello fashioned stools from abandoned Christmas trees on the streets of London.
  6. Plant Stakes: If you don’t have access to sticks in the woods near you, strip the branches of their needles and use them to stake your indoor plants that need some extra support.
  7. Pea Sticks: You can use the stripped branches as pea sticks later in the spring. Criss-cross them to make a trellis for your peas to grow up.
  8. Marshmallow Sticks: Those same pea sticks can then be used as marshmallow-roasting sticks in the summer.
  9. Garden Edging: Cut the trunk into disks to use as a garden border if you line them up on their sides and dig them 2” into the soil. These look really pretty on the garden’s edge.
  10. Fire Starter: We save some of our needles to use in our homemade fire starters.
  11. Potpourri: Use the needles for a homemade balsam potpourri.
  12. Garden Path: Use the disks cut from your tree trunk as flat stepping “stones” in your garden path. If you have a chipper, the wood chips from your tree can make nice garden path material, too.
  13. Erosion Barrier: We have used past trees along a slope on our property to help prevent a slope from slipping. This is our ongoing brush pile that is stabilizing the slope and holding up our lawn above it nicely.
  14. Habitat: If your tree ends up in your brush pile, or out in a spot on your property, it provides cover for birds and little rodents, making a safe habitat for plenty of critters. Some experts claim that throwing a tree into your pond can provide safe cover for your fish.
  15. Save the Blue Herons: In Illinois a special Christmas tree recycling program reuses the trees as nesting materials in a blue heron rookery.
    Our Elves © Liesl Clark

    Our Elves © Liesl Clark

    What do you do with your tree? Are there any other reuses that we didn’t include?