A new year implies a clean slate, a fresh start and a good time to evaluate how we are doing as citizens of our fragile planet. As gardeners, cooks, office workers, parents or teachers, we make hundreds of small choices about the products we purchase and the trash we create that align us as part of the solution or part of a very big problem.
Recycling appears in the American consciousness cyclically, with a big surge starting in the 1970s. Depending upon where you live, recycling glass, plastic and paper may be routine, or it may be ignored. When you recycle plastic or tires, they are cleaned, melted and re-formed into other products made of plastic or rubber. Recycling can be expensive – a reason some townships have dropped their programs – and often requires active commitments to make it happen.
“Repurposing” is a relatively newer term that describes simpler, less costly ways to use something in its existing form but for a new purpose. Gardeners do it all the time: A lampshade frame becomes a peony support. Popsicle sticks are seedling markers. Bottomless cat food cans thwart cutworms. Gallon milk jugs are mini-greenhouses for little plants. Storm windows make cold frames. Stakes are made from broom handles and rusty rakes, compost bins from window screens and pallets. For more ideas and fun reading, look for the older Yankee or Rodale “tips books” like “Now, That’s Ingenious” (2003), “Shameless Shortcuts” (2004), “Vinegar, Duct Tape, Milk Jugs and More” (2005) and “1,001 Ingenious Gardening Ideas” (2007). You’ll never put torn pantyhose in the wastebasket again.
Moms and elementary school teachers have been repurposing since cave children first banged rocks together. Cardboard boxes are playhouses, pots and pans are drums, and worn-out clothes, scarves and hats offer infinite dress-up and theatrical potential.
Artists also repurpose; just walk through any museum with modern art. In Buffalo, now famously, artist-gardeners (or gardening artists) provide surprise, whimsy, humor, beauty and fresh perspectives using repurposed objects. Our creativity is endless once we look at discards for their possible functions.
Reuse the Christmas tree
From the simplest repurposing to complete recycling, here are possible final acts for your tree:
• Stick the tree upright, outside, still in the stand if you wish, to form a wind block for the bird feeder or door. Tie on suet treats, pine cones or popcorn balls smeared with peanut butter, or orange peels packed with fat and seeds.
• Put the tree in the woods, where it benefits wildlife in several ways and eventually decomposes.
• Put your tree (or several trees from the street) into your hedgerow or the row of trees along the side or back of your lot. The trees provide shelter and browsing for animals, and the needles will be good for the soil. (They do not make it too acidic; our soils are rarely acidic enough in this area.)
• Cut off branches and place them (on the snow) over roses, perennials, or any garden bed. At planting time these boughs can become “pea-shrub” or “pea sticks” – the traditional gardening term for twiggy branches you place in the ground to prop up peas or other floppy plants.
• Mulch it if you have access to a wood chipper. (Be extremely careful.)
• Find out what your town is doing to collect and recycle Christmas trees. The City of Buffalo will collect trees for one week (Monday through Jan. 11) and will recycle them. Do not bag them, and remove all garland and ornaments. Three locations will also accept your trees until Jan. 18 (7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday): Cazenovia Park, Shoshone Park and 1120 Seneca St. (www.ci.Buffalo.ny.us).
The rest of the holiday stuff
The “greenest” people use the least wrapping paper, Styrofoam, bubble wrap, boxes and bags. But these materials are part of a typical holiday and add to huge garbage pickups. We can reuse them many times over if somebody under the Christmas tree folds the salvageable paper and winds up the ribbon. (Admittedly, that person is sometimes mocked, but we get the last laugh: My family continues to use some truly vintage wrapping paper that includes the handwritten names of boyfriends and relatives long gone.) Old Christmas cards become gift tags. Gift bags are easily reused. Some mailing businesses accept your foam peanuts, bubble wrap, shredded paper and even boxes; ask around.
Garden uses of post-holiday debris is limited, but we have some options. Some Styrofoam pieces and foam peanuts can fill space in the bottom of planters, but we’d be better off not acquiring it at all. Shredded office or wrapping paper is great in the compost, in the worm bin or in the soil. Stop getting unwanted catalogs. Most of you know all about putting cardboard and newspaper on the garden or on paths to block weeds. Why not flatten the boxes and stash them until spring? Yarn and ribbons can be snipped into 4-inch lengths for nesting birds to use when the mating season comes.
Mother Nature is a perfect model as she recycles every organic molecule. Recycling and repurposing are common sense choices. If you haven’t yet, start with the Christmas tree.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.