Unique (and Downright Strange) Steps towards Zero Waste

The Next Steps in Recycling

By Amy Copeland

As we dutifully pitch our cardboard, glass, and the sometimes-hard-to-avoid plastic bottles into the recycling bin every week, it can feel like a lot is left over for the trashcan. That does not feel great. But it turns out, a lot more can be recycled that we might not have considered. People are now pushing the envelope in recycling. Some common things that we might not have considered can be easily recycled, as well as some extremely offbeat things.

What else get recycled into common or uncommon things? Let’s start with the ever present….


Crayons were always meaningful in my household growing up because both of my grandparents spent their working lives at the Binney and Smith Crayola factory in Easton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. My father spent some time there too. As a result, Crayola® was the sole crayon brand in our home. I’m sure we had lots of broken or worn down crayons that probably went to the landfill.

It turns out, your crayons can have a second life. The National Crayon Recycling Program, in collaboration with Crazy Crayons, LLC, turns your unwanted crayons into new, fun-shaped crayons, which they sell. This partnership keeps 120,000 pounds of used crayons out of landfills. However, before you send your crayons to them, they suggest you first look locally to donate, such as for art supply needs at inner-city art programs, homeless shelters, and hospitals.

Blending the recycled crayons may not yield the current 120 Crayola colors but who really needs 120 colors anyway? (Psst – Don’t tell my dad I said that!)

Running shoes

My brother is a marathon runner, and when he is training, he puts in a lot of miles. I asked him about how frequently runners replace their shoes. “The usual guideline,” he says, “is to replace shoes every 300-500 miles. For an elite marathoner that would be every five weeks, although I would be surprised if they go through that many shoes.” Even if there aren’t that many elite marathoners among us, runners of all levels still go through running shoes. There are donation programs that donate shoes to people who need them (give your local running store a call to see if they collect them – many do), but you can also bring any brand of running shoe to most Nike® stores (Call first to make sure the retail location near you participates) to be converted into turf, tracks, courts, playground surfaces, and more.

Screenshot from https://www.nikegrind.com/surfaces/

Wine corks

I’m a little embarrassed by how much wine gets imbibed in my house. I have collected wine corks to do something crafty with them. But to be honest, my “special projects” list is getting long and my creativity is fading a bit as my days fill with more important activities. Plus, they are starting to take up a lot of space. I’m happy to find that wine corks can be recycled into footwear and yoga blocks through ReCORK™. The website has a map with tons of locations in the US and Canada. But in case you are looking for other options to use your wine corks, you will find some upcycling ideas here.


If you listen to your dentist, you should replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months. In my household, that would be 6-8 toothbrushes a year. And yet, according to Zero Waste DC, District residents should be putting toothbrushes in the trash. Those little pieces of plastic with bristles add up in landfills! But we can change that. Preserve has been around since 1996 and through their Toothbrush Takeback program, you can collect toothbrushes and send them in. You get store credit to buy new toothbrushes made from 100% recycled #5 BPA-free plastic, as well as for other products too.


Gumdrop ® is a recycling initiative started in the UK in 2009 and, unfortunately, is still currently only available in the UK. Chewing gum is collected using publicly placed bins and is turned into functional products like pencils, combs, guitar picks, and doorstops. According to Gumdrop’s website, however, the company is looking to expand, so hopefully someday soon you will see bright pink Gumdrop Bins in a public space near you. These bins can be placed in public locations or even carried for personal use to collect your own waste gum.

According to the website, this initiative has significantly decreased gum litter and cleaning costs in areas where it is used. (And we all know gum is a pain to clean.

Plastic cards

Our wallets are full of these: credit cards, gift cards, membership cards, library cards. Hotel card keys too. According to EarthWorks™, many of the 10 billion new cards produced per year (we assume globally) are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and contribute to more than 75 million pounds of material in the trash every year. Earthworks accepts plastic gift cards (credit cards are more difficult since there is personal information involved, even if it is no longer active), but they also encourage consumers to contact their favorite hotels and stores and ask them to consider recycling their cards and to make new ones with 100% recycled plastic. Not a heavy lift as a Climate Step!  

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

Human and pet hair

Wait, what? My husband’s response, when I mentioned this, was, “I wish I had known about that during the ten years when I had a cat!” Who knew that Rudy’s hair (and our hair, for that matter) could have contributed to environmental cleanups? According to the Matter of Trust Clean Wave Program website, “You shampoo because hair collects oil. Through our charity, you can donate hair, fur and fleece clippings to soak up major oil spills and help keep storm drains and waterways clean.” This charity also provides classroom resources to help educate students on oil spill cleanup activities.

Sex toy recycling

Ok, let’s get real: Sure, we all aspire to recycle as much as possible, but there may be certain broken bedroom items discreetly hidden in an opaque bag that gets buried in a trashcan that is not our trashcan so that we can pretend it isn’t actually ours and we don’t even know where that came from…Wait, what were we talking about? Anyway, since we really want to keep everything out of the landfill, wouldn’t you be happy to learn that some of your “intimate accessories” can also be recycled? It’s up to you to decide whether you want to risk opening this link at work (It won’t open if you are on, say, a Starbucks network…something I learned firsthand!) but do save it for when it might be useful.  

Making recycling work

When I mentioned to my marathoner brother that there were options for recycling shoes, his response was “Yeah, I’d definitely do something like that if it was easy to do.”

When it comes to changing behavior, two questions many people have are: is it easy and is it cheap? When it comes to maximizing what we recycle, fewer barriers to the action are likely to make more people do it. I was excited to find recycling options for just about everything you could imagine, but when it came to the “easy-and-cheap” litmus test, things got a bit more complicated. For example, the website for TerraCycle® has options to recycle practically anything you own. How great is that? Except that when you get down to details, it isn’t cheap.

Screenshot from: https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/zero_waste_boxes/alkaline-batteries

For instance, the small shipping box for alkaline (not rechargeable) batteries is a good size and will hold lots of batteries; however, many frugal consumers would balk a bit at the price tag to recycle.

In terms of ease, there may not always be a convenient drop off spot, or it may not be easy to get to the post office, or we may not have room in our homes to house the box that will save spent batteries or candy and snack wrappers or “binders and presentation waste.” TerraCycle accepts these items but in many cases, this option has barriers.

When we think about things we want or need, it’s worth thinking ahead about what happens later. Ideally, thinking about the end of the life of a product should be a consideration when getting it in the first place. I might feel strongly that a childhood isn’t complete without crayons, which is why it is awesome that there is an easy and cheap way to recycle or repurpose them. You can pry the wine bottle out of my cold dead hands, so I’m grateful that there is a way to recycle the corks into products people actually might want. But if I don’t want to pay $175 and store a big box in my closet, maybe I should consider alternatives to non-rechargeable alkaline batteries when I’m considering the purchase to begin with. Making truly conscious choices will result in less stuff in the first place. Not only will that result in less waste and less climate pollution, but it will result in less energy spent trying to figure out what to do with it later!

But when stuff is a necessity, collective or community action may be an effective Climate Step. If you have extra storage space, reach out to neighborhood mailing lists and offer to be the repository for spent batteries and gift cards. Set up a GoFundMe page to cover the cost of a TerraCycle Zero Waste box. When it becomes a group effort, it becomes cheap and easy. Then everyone wins.


Banner image by Annette Olson.

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