Joy of packaging: Tips for upcycling boxes, containers, lids and more

bracelet made from Skinny Cow package
I know, I know, packaging is evil, a waste of resources and a visual lure to our baser consumer tendencies. Cheerfully bright colors and goofy cartoon faces can't help but tempt us. I try not to succumb to this temptation. 

But when I do, I try to make amends by transforming a cool package into something useful. Like this bracelet made in part from "Skinny Cow" faces. (Ice cream sandwiches fyi)

   6 tips for upcycling packaging                                  

1. Look for graphic art, not photos -- If there's art on a package, that usually means some creative person has invested time and talent into making the image. Compare the eyelash-batting bovine above with a plain old photo of an ice cream sandwich. Good sources:
  • Candy boxes (see below)
  • Greeting cards
  • Tissue boxes
  • Cancelled stamps
2. More is better -- Take another look at the packages for things you use frequently. Lots of little unimpressive bits can add up to something special. Remember the hats made out of aluminum pull tabs crocheted together, circa 1974? (Today thankfully, pull-tab purses are more popular.) If you have lots of the same thing, you can create interesting patterns -- a plain black or white jam jar lid is trash, but 64 glued to cardboard makes an unusual chess board.

3. Stay strong -- The stronger the material, the better. Plain paper won't cut it unless you cover it with Mod Podge or other protective coating. The strongest sacks are made to hold heavy stuff, like dog food or cat litter. Or to protect the contents from moisture and light, like coffee bags or cigar boxes.
iPad bag made from burlap rice sack
4. Be exotic -- I'm always on the lookout for text in another language, written in an unusual alphabet, or a mysterious logo, like burlap rice bags from India.

5. It's easy to modify --  Look for packaging that's easy to cut, color and glue with tools and goops you already have. For instance, most cottage cheese and butter tubs are hard to recycle but easy to decorate using acrylic paint (see below). 

6. Beware clutter -- Don't bury yourself under a pile of coffee stirrers, jar lids, or litter bags just because you'll be able to find a use for them someday. Limit yourself to collecting only 2 or 3 kinds of packages at a time. Where will you store them? If it's in the garage, no need to clean them until you use them. But wash the items first if you'll keep them inside, and once they're dry, keep them in air-tight containers.

Here are some of my adventures in packaging...

   Candy & cookie boxes                                      

For bright colors, cartoon shapes, and fun fonts, you can't beat candy boxes -- true eye candy. Here's a bracelet made from a package of my favorite treat, JujyFruit (don't tell my dentist).
Bracelet from Jujyfruit candy box

I used my paper punch to chop up the box into squares for mounting onto Scrabble tiles. I spread the candy's name across 4 tiles and added images of candy pieces on either side. What made this box work was that its art and text was the right size for my small square canvases. Good N' Plenty, Mike & Ike, Dots, and Redhots work great, too. If I was using dominoes instead, I'd have to look for packages with vertical art.

Last month I attended a charity event, and my gift bag included cookies packaged in the most tasteful box I'd ever seen. The complimentary colors and quirky line drawings were fashionable and fun. Perfect for a bracelet!
bracelet made from cookie package

  Kitty litter bags                                                  

re-usable bag from kitty litter sack
Our household goes through lots of cat litter, which makes me feel guilty (and smell like perfumed dust). To make the best of a bad situation, I transform the bags into reusable shopping bags. My favorite package is Feline Pine, which features a pop art kitty face.

This bag is made from plastic, easy to sew but not as strong as I'd prefer. Other litter bags like Fresh Step are made of tougher woven material. I have a pile of bright yellow bags ready to sew (they've been ready since mid-summer when I hung them out on my clothesline).

  Plastic tubs                                                       

I can never figure out why some plastic tubs are easy to recycle (#1 and 2) and others are the kind of plastic my waste company won't touch. My favorite butter spread comes in a ginormous #5 container. Lots of cottage cheese tubs are made of the same stuff. With just a quick wash, they make great pencil holders. I've also used acrylic paint to transform them into flashy pots for my small indoor plants.

Plant pot made from cottage cheese tub
There's a less obvious but more fun way to upcycle these tubs -- turn them into doll furniture! My favorite 7-year-old and I recently outfitted our homemade Barbie house (previously a cardboard box) with furniture made from plastic tubs. I colored the groovy chair with permanent markers and the table usually has an elegant paper tablecloth thrown over it.
Doll furniture made from plastic tubs

 Coffee bags                                                        

vase made from coffee bean bag
Dark northwest winters mean cups and cups of strong coffee, which in turn means lots and lots of coffee bags. The ones we prefer happen to have cool designs, including my favorite fantasy creature, a mermaid.  

Eventually, I'd like to make reusable bags or even a purse or tablet case out of these cool bags. But for now, I'm satisfied with this "made in minutes" upcycled flower vase. I just rinsed out the bag and tucked an empty cat food tin inside the bottom, then filled the tin with water. I love the way the hydrangea blossoms match the copper color on the bag!

 Bottle caps & stoppers                                        

How can you tell if summer was fun? By the height of the pile of beer caps you've saved. For us, last summer was a season of Red Hook ale (brewed locally in Seattle). The cheery red caps are begging to be turned into some kind of Christmas wreath. My husband domed a bunch for me, so I could make garlands as well. 
Beer caps
We also saved a pile of wood cork stoppers from whiskey bottles. With not too much work, my husband could transform them into a retro sunburst clock. He also has ideas for using them as knobs and push buttons around the house.
whiskey bottle stoppers

 Still more to do                                                  

I break my own rule by collecting more types of packages than I should. Here are items still waiting for a use. Can you identify them all?
More packages to upcycle

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