tomato seedlings growing in egg carton

Before you toss an empty Froot Loops box, butter tub, or soda bottle into the recycling bin, take a second to determine if it has any potential for reuse first.

Pantry staples and take-out orders yield lots of disposables, but some are surprisingly versatile and well worth putting aside for other duties.

To spark inspiration for repurposing food packaging, we’re sharing more than a dozen of our favorite ideas. They’re all super simple and we’ll admit, a few are definitely for the birds (we mean that literally).

Bread Tags

Photo: Patti Roth
  • Reserve these sturdy plastic workhorses for scraping dried bits from dishes, sinks, oven doors, sneakers, walls, and other surfaces. Designate a place for them (perhaps a recycled butter tub) so they’re ready to roll when needed. We’ll bet your manicurist is delighted.
  • Fix a broken flip-flop. Various online sources suggest using a bread tag for a quick repair. The bread tag, positioned on the bottom of the flip-flop, locks into place the piece that fits between your toes, preventing it from slipping out from the sole through the tear. If you’re a flip-flop enthusiast, you’d be wise to toss a few bread tags into your beach bag, purse, or vehicle for pinch fixes. Read for directions.

Onion Sacks

Photo: Patti Roth
  • Repurpose mesh bags from onions, oranges, or lemons as sort of a “Home Depot” for backyard birds foraging for nesting materials, which usually occurs in spring. Zach Slavin of the National Audubon Society provided us with this wildlife-friendly idea. Load the net sacks with suitable natural items like twigs, stems, and pine needles. If you’d like, layer in little balls of mud, dried grasses, and pet hair. Pull some of the plant bits through the openings or poke them in from the outside so they’re easier for birds to pluck. Tie the bag to a tree branch and perhaps you’ll be rewarded with a front-row seat to a live show as birds browse the selection.
  • Wad up pieces of leftover produce netting to wash dishes, lawn furniture, floors, toys, and anything else that needs scrubbing.

Rubber Bands

Photo: Patti Roth
  • Stockpile rubber bands from bunched produce and take-out packaging. If you’re a regular at Whole Foods salad bars, we’re sure your supply of elastics is impressive. Reach for one before you attempt to twist off a tight lid on pickles or spaghetti sauce. Stretching a rubber band around the perimeter of a jar lid makes it easier to grip and open. No need to bother your muscle-bound friend.

Aluminum Bowls

  • Aluminum take-out bowls are lightweight and perfect as portable pet dishes for a road trip or afternoon at the park. We especially like Chipotle’s oval burrito bowl lids.
  • We also use these aluminum ovals for DIY frosty dog treats. Toss in mashed banana, pet-safe peanut butter, kibble, or whatever healthy edibles you’d like. Add water, freeze solid and serve to your well-deserving pooch. Safety note: Use with supervision and remove the bowl when your furry friend is finished to be sure he doesn’t gnaw on the aluminum.

Egg Cartons

  • Take advantage of built-in dividers for organizing items like screws, beads, and Legos bricks. For other ideas, read our feature, “6 Eggcellent Uses for Egg Cartons.”

Wine Corks

Photo: Danielle Bays for the HSUS
  • Danielle Bays of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) loads a bowl with clean corks and a bit of kibble as a fun foraging activity for her cats, including Morrissey, Monroe, and Meowgi. “Some will dig in with a paw, but they mostly just shove their heads through the corks like bobbing for apples,” Bays explains. A word of precaution, though, when using nonedible recyclables as pet toys: Be sure to do so only with supervision and remove the items when you’re not watching to prevent pets from nibbling or swallowing pieces. “You don’t want to give your pet anything that might be a choking hazard, or that they might get tangled up in, or that might be harmful for them to ingest,” says Vicki Stevens of the HSUS. “When in doubt, ask your veterinarian.”
  • If you’re crafty, convert corks into items like wine glass charms, jewelry, and bulletin boards. Ideas and instructions are featured in our article, “Cheers: 8 Ways to Reuse Wine Corks.”

Milk Jugs, Water Bottles, Sour Cream Containers, etc.

  • Enlist empties as temporary pots for starting seeds or rooting vines. Be sure to wash out any residue and definitely poke drainage holes at the bottom, says Dave Whitinger, executive director of the National Gardening Association (NGA). Bonus recycling tip: Use plastic utensils from take-out packaging as plant markers for your green babies, especially if you’re sharing them at a plant swap event. Information about rooting cuttings is on the NGA’s website.

Paper Boxes and Bags

Photo: Patti Roth
  • Cut cereal and cracker boxes into blank canvases for youngsters’ crayon masterpieces. Bonus environmental tip: Display the artwork on windows. Incorporating decals and other visual elements on windows helps prevent birds from inadvertently flying into them.
  • Design gift tags using squares, ovals, or free-form shapes sliced from empty food boxes. Embellish the tags as simply or as elaborately as you please. Rather than store-bought tags, DIY versions are frugal, eco-friendly, and refreshingly unique.

This article was originally published on January 13, 2017.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.