The Jew And The Carrot

'Upcycling': Finding a Second Life for Food Packaging

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Livegreene

Long before anyone started using terms like “recycling,” “repurposing,” and “upcycling” (turning a disposable item like a soda can pull-tab into something intrinsically useful and longer lasting, like a handbag), our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew a thing or two about “reusing” food packaging.

They lived in a world in which food did not come excessively shrink-wrapped or in boxes designed to scream at you from supermarket shelves, and in which “disposable” was not a term they applied to either income or things that they bought. Balebustas stored leftovers in used plastic margarine, cottage cheese and ice cream containers, reused paper grocery bags to wrap parcels and line garbage bins, and never considered putting fruits and vegetables in plastic bags before placing them in their shopping bag. So they would probably find the current dilemma of what to do with all this food packaging a bit ridiculous.

They would also probably be surprised, but pleased, to see the creative, artistic and useful products that green-conscious entrepreneurs are making today out of things like discarded yogurt containers, milk jugs, soda pop bottles, can pull-tabs and cereal boxes.

Having errantly lived through the “disposable generation,” we now know that what our grandmothers did was right, and that it wasn’t just all bubbemeises (old wives tales). “The best packaging — whether for food or anything else — is no packaging,” said David Greene, owner of Livegreene, a house wares and gift store in Palo Alto, California that sells only items that are from recycled, reused, repurposed or sustainable sources. “Packaging waste is intrinsically bad design, so green entrepreneurs are now figuring out ways to repurpose or upcycle this packaging into non-disposable items.”

Livegreene carries a variety of products that are good examples of this food packaging upcycling that Greene describes. For instance, there are fashionable purses and handbags made out of soda can pull-tabs by a fair trade/fair wage co-op in Mexico. Women without job market skills are taught to scavenge for the pull-tabs at recycling collection sites, file the sharp edges off them, and weave them into attractive handbags.

A San Francisco Bay Area-based company called Green Toys makes durable toy trucks out of recycled plastic milk jugs. By doing so, the company not only recycles, but also saves carbon emissions by keeping the recycled plastic in California, rather than it being shipped to China (where most of California’s recycled plastic goes, according to Greene). A company outside Boston called Preserve uses a similar process to turn plastic yogurt containers into useful household items like cutting boards, measuring cups, colanders, food storage containers, mixing bowls, picnic ware, and even toothbrushes and razors.

Green Glass of Wisconsin makes fun drinking glasses out of used retro-style soda pop bottles and colorful drinking glasses and wine goblets out of empty wine bottles. San Francisco-based Boxcard takes box tops from cereal boxes, soda can cartons and the like, and laser-cuts letters and glues them back onto greeting cards made out of the same box tops. Each card front features an ironic or humorous message related to the specific food. For instance, one that says, “University Trash” is made from a Red Bull carton and one that reads, “Garbage In, Garbage Out” comes from a sugary cereal box.

To carry all these upcycled items home to show your grandmother, you could buy a messenger bag fashioned from burlap coffee bean sacks, scrap fabrics and used car seatbelts made by a company called It’s Our Earth.

The creative among us can take a leaf from these companies and start coming up with ways to upcycle our own recyclables into works of art or practical items (check out this great list of 100 ideas). The rest of us can also help in the effort by making sure (through a little research) that our recyclables end up in the hands of companies that focus on local upcycling, rather than on recycling methods that create yet more carbon emissions.

You might be excited to show all these cool upcycled products off to your grandmother, touting your efforts toward upholding the Jewish value of shmirat kadur ha’aaretz, or preserving the earth. She, however, would probably just smile knowingly and remark that you’re finally using some old-fashioned seichel (common sense) and not wasting.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Upcycling, Repurposing, Recycling, Livegreene

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.