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Creative Recycling: 5 Ways to Recycle Smarter

Have you ever wanted to turn your trash into something useful so it doesn't end up in a landfill? If so, you're in the right place. Keep reading to learn more about a circular economy, upcycling vs. downcycling, composting, freecycling, precycling, and what you can do to get involved.

Creative Recycling: 5 Ways to Recycle Smarter

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Allison Fritchen


May 18th, 2023

Did you know that we are in a waste crisis? In fact, within the last year, it is estimated that 30% of food and yard waste could have been composted, and up to 55% could have been recycled, ended up in a landfill. Nevertheless, recycling isn't some fad you missed out on; you can start today!  

In the world of recycling, it's important to understand how you can repurpose, upcycle, donate, and DIY materials that you already have on hand. Doing so will reuse recycled materials, support our circular economy efforts, and keep raw materials in our economy longer.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that a circular economy will keep our raw and man-made materials, products, and services in our globalized circulation of goods as long as possible. In practice, a circular economy decreases the amount of material used and redesigns materials, products, and services. Reimagining things you might have thought about as plastic or food waste and focusing on creative outlets for your recyclables can solve a fraction of our waste management problems. 

Thus, a circular economy can slow climate change, give old materials a new purpose, protect the environment, improve economics, increase sustainability, and even elevate social justice.

This article will explore the different ways you can recycle your old materials, such as clothes, bottles, jugs, tires, aluminum cans, etc., and give them new life.

We will explore five of the best ways to recycle smarter, including upcycling, downcycling, composting, donation/freecycling, precycling, and ways to get involved in your community.

Let's dive in!

1. Upcycling

If you're an avid crafter (like I am), you've probably heard of upcycling and downcycling. These practices take old, worn out, decomposing products and materials and give them new life instead of taking limited landfill space.


Upcycling is one of the most common ways homeowners in our community recycle. According to Habitat for Humanity, upcycling is defined as: "The act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. In doing so, the finished product often becomes more practical, valuable, and beautiful than what it previously was."

The overarching goal surrounding upcycling is to prevent wasting useful materials while making use of your existing ones. In fact, a lot of our recyclables can be transformed into something new, so before you throw those old clothes, tires, or wrappers, think about what you could make out of them.

In the world of upcycling, the possibilities are endless.

Examples of Upcycling (DIY)

  • Turning plastic waste/ wrappers (candy or snacks) into a purse
  • Creating a clock or shelf from a vinyl record
  • Restoring a piece of old furniture to its former glory

  • Making a bracelet from an old belt
  • Turning your old jeans into a skirt
  • Creating furniture (indoor & outdoor) from wood pallets
  • Making Eco Bricks
  • Turning old tires into a garden

What Are the Benefits of Upcycling?

  • Saves materials from going to a landfill
  • Creates minimal usage of natural resources
  • Reduces CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions
  • Extends the lifespan of certain materials
  • Decreases the cost of manufacturing and production
  • Encourages creativity and innovation

2. Downcycling

On the other hand, downcycling is recycling material to make a new product/material of lower value than the original and is typically weaker and cheaper.

Examples of Downcycling

  • Broken-down plastics are used to make items with less value, like fleece, polyester, or siding.
  • Plastic bottles can be made into car parts, park benches, drain pipes, railroad ties, and truck bed liners.
  • Turning old clothes into rags, other than throwing them out
  • Creating low-grade plastics

What Are the Benefits of Downcycling?

Like upcycling, downcycling has its own set of benefits that protect the environment and eliminate waste, such as:

  • Saving in energy costs
  • Decreasing the Earth's pollution
  • Reducing manufacturing expenses
  • Protecting our environment 

Keep in mind that upcycling and downcycling will not solve our waste problem; however, they can help our landfills last longer, enhance our circular economy, create a zero-waste lifestyle, and give old products and materials a new lease on life.

3. Composting

Composting is widely known as the process of converting organic/raw materials into rich, nutrient-filled soil or much made through natural decomposition. The end result is dark and earthy-smelling organic soil, which you can use for your garden or houseplants.

Examples of Compostable Materials

  • Yard Waste
  • Food Scraps
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Paper Tea Bags (without staples)

The EPA's Tips for Starting Your Own Backyard Compost Pile

Below are some tips and tricks from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help you get started on your own compost pile.

1. Figure Out How You Are Going To Gather and Store Your Compostables- typically, for your greens, homeowners store them in a closed container on their kitchen counter (if you have room), under the sink, fridge, or freezer.

For your browns, it's best practice to store them in a designated place outside. Once you have enough, you can start your compost pile by mixing the browns and greens.

Examples of "Browns" and "Greens"

  • "Browns" = dry leaves, plants, twigs, and sticks. Each of these materials is a carbon-rich material that provides food for microorganisms living and working in your compost pile.
  • "Greens" = grass clippings, food scraps, eggshells, and other nitrogen-rich materials, which cause your pile to "heat up" and decompose.

2. Where To Place Your Compost Pile- when placing your compost pile, you'll want to make sure you choose a place that is easily accessible (all year round) and has a good drainage path.

You can enclose your compost bin in various materials, such as wood, cinder blocks/bricks, and chicken wire, or they can be enclosed in a specific yard waste bin or barrel.

It's important to note that your compost pile will break down regardless of whether it's in the sun or shade; just avoid placing it against a fence or house.

3. Prepare Your Scraps for Composting- one of the best ways to accelerate the time it takes for your compost pile to break down is to prepare your scraps for composting.

Now, you may ask yourself, "What do they mean by preparing my compost?" Well, before adding both your greens and browns to your compost pile, you can chop, cut, and break your organic/raw materials into smaller pieces.

4. Maintaining Your Compost Pile- to maintain your compost pile, you'll want to ensure proper airflow and decomposition by turning and mixing your pile. Most often, this is done by using a garden fork or shovel.

Plus, over time, you might notice that your compost pile radiates heat… well, that's because it is! A good compost will reach 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit and not attract flies or rodents!

4. Donating/ Freecycling

You know how the old saying goes: "Someone's trash is another person's treasure," right?

When you're trying to think of creative ways to recycle, typically, homeowners don't think of donation as a form of recycling, but it is! You can donate used toys, books, clothes, furniture, appliances, etc., to someone in need. In fact, it's one of the best ways to recycle!

Donating your gently used items puts your items back in our economy, which gives your donated item new life that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill.

You can also save money, reduce your carbon footprint, and decrease the number of items going into a landfill by shopping secondhand. Not to mention, when you shop secondhand, you are also supporting your local charities.

5. Precycling

If you've never heard of this term, don't worry, it's an up-and-coming term that combines the words prevent and recycle. So, what exactly is Precyclng?


In short, precycling is the practice of preventing additional waste before it's even created.

However, precycling is more than that; it's the strategy of reducing, reusing, recycling, and purchasing recycled goods while supporting sustainable brands that incorporate recycling into their business practices and in our everyday lives to create a more sustainable world.

Ways To Precycle

  • Bringing Your Grocery Bags to Store: For example, the grocery store, Aldi, is one of the leaders in the precycling initiative. When you shop at Aldi, shoppers must use/bring their reusable bags, use Aldi's recycled boxes (typically located at the front of the store), or purchase bags directly from Aldi.

  • Buying Concentrated Items in Bulk: concentrated products are juices, detergents, dish soap, cleaning products, etc. Buying concentrated prevents homeowners from buying items with unnecessary packaging and, in turn, prevents more waste in our landfills.
  • Opting For Items Packaged in "Recycled Materials": however, you'll want to ensure that the packaging has the recycling symbol AND states that it is "Made from Recycled Materials."
  • Buying "Life-long" Products: long-life products that last a lifetime, are rechargeable, or are a combination of both, including, but not limited to, batteries, lightbulbs, appliances, etc. Not to mention, this saves on plastic packaging and prevents gently used items from filling up our landfills.

In hindsight, precycling is about more than the act of recycling your goods; it's about understanding and acknowledging the complexity of our planet's waste problem, reusing what can, and preventing unnecessary or impulse buys that hurt our environment more than it helps.

Benefits of Precycling

Believe it or not, precycling can and will play a significant role in creating a more sustainable, healthy, and thriving planet. Below are some examples of the benefits precycling has for individuals on a national and even global scale.

  1. Preventing Future Waste- According to the EPA, the average person in the U.S. generates almost five pounds of trash daily. However, by buying bulk or lifelong products, you are preventing unnecessary waste from entering our landfills.

    Even with our recycling, upcycling, downcycling, composting, and freecycling, precycling is one of the best ways to combat our huge waste problem as a society.

  2. Supporting a Circular Economy- When you precycle, it keeps items that would've ended up in a landfill (ex: tote bag) you are now using for your groceries, which keeps unnecessary plastic waste out of our landfills and circulating in our economy.

  3. Diminishing Greenhouse Gases- Making a product from scratch takes a significant amount of time, effort, money, and, most importantly, energy. Not to mention, this process releases fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

How To Get Involved

We hope one of these efforts stuck out, and you can't wait to start your next DIY project using recycled products and materials!

You can also join your local community trash pick-up crew, educate friends, family, and coworkers about recycling, partake in composting and recycling efforts, and work towards creating a zero-waste lifestyle.

On top of that, as part of Columbus's Climate Action Plan, the city will start collecting your recyclables from your blue bin every week (previously bi-weekly). This initiative hopes to increase the city's recycling rate from 25% to 40% by 2032.

So, before you throw that plastic bag, scrap metal, glass/plastic bottle, egg carton, aluminum, or paper product, in your recycling bin, confirm it is an accepted recyclable material and that it is part of your city's recycling program. If not, you can recycle smarter and create something new and practical. 

Remember, creative recycling starts with you! That said, any amount of recycling, composting, upcycling, etc., deters those items from being sent to a landfill, which is good for you, your wallet, and the environment.

What About Fire & Ice?

At Fire and Ice, we want to take our green initiative further and clean up Columbus one mile at a time. To show our community trust, transparency, accountability, and our commitment to saving the planet, we are sponsoring 200 miles of highway surrounding the city of Columbus.

Once a month, highway pick-up crews will go along our sponsored miles, clean up litter, and take it to our recycling facilities to be properly disposed of or recycled. We want to help the community in which we live and work while correcting the current litter problem and preventing the unlawful disposal of trash.

Our "Sponsor a Highway" campaign will begin in the Summer of 2023; stay updated on our campaign, and join us today by creating a better, more sustainable earth for our future generations!

Interested in more things HVAC?

Check out our Comprehensive Learning Tracks!

Recycling 101

Everything you need to know about reducing, reusing, and recycling in Columbus, Ohio

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