To reduce the rate in which we generate waste, reusing materials has a huge role to play. Reusing, which includes upcycling of materials, comes third in the 5R’s strategy, right after reduce and before recycle! The world of reusing might seem thrifty or as if you are being frugal, but it in fact is an important part of making sure recycling facilities are not overloaded and it reduces what ends up in the landfill. 

Many items we purchase, especially the packaging from those items, can have other purposes besides the one it has when we buy it. Finding new uses for packaging can take some level of creativity, but once you start finding these avenues of exploration, you may start to view packaging in a different way when you make a purchase. 

Gardening is one of my favourite activities, especially starting seeds indoors as the weather slowly warms here is Zone 3 (Calgary). Seed starting and gardening outdoors requires all sorts of little tools, containers, fertilizers, frost prevention, and a variety of other items. All of which are easy to create from reused materials. 

Below are some fancy ideas to spice up your gardening experience with things from your home you may be able to transfer into gardening tools and materials you would otherwise purchase.

Tea & Coffee as Natural Fertilizer

Ground tea and coffee are a great source of nutrients for your garden soil. They add nitrogen to the soil which is an important component in aiding the plant’s growth. If plants do not have enough nitrogen they will often show signs of leaf discolouration. Tea and coffee also aid in moisture retention, as long as there isn’t too much of it layered on the top of the soil. The best way to incorporate either tea or coffee into the soil is to remove them from the bag or filter and gently scrape them into the surface.


Eggshells are great to have for a couple different uses. The first is something called eggshell tea. Eggshell tea is made from boiling water and pouring it over a jar full of eggshells. Once it sits for a day or overnight, the water can be added to your plants. Steeping eggshells helps bring out the potassium, calcium, and phosphorus in the egg shells, which provides great extra nutrients for little plants!

The second use egg shells are great for, is as the base for seed starting. Eggshells make the perfect little pocket for starting a seed, and they are incredibly easy to plant in the ground by simply breaking the shell with your fingers. I’ve used egg cartons for this purpose in the past, but I’ve always found that when I place them in the ground the egg carton actually has a difficult time breaking down. The only thing you should be cautious of when using eggs in this way, is how you are cracking your eggs, making sure to leave one larger side. 

Pasta or Salsa Jars

Reused jars are perfect for so many things, but for gardening they can be used as a vessel for sprout seeds. To grow sprouts you do not need a lid for the jar, just the jar itself, a little piece of cheese cloth and an elastic. About ½ tsp of seeds go inside the jar, soaking in water for 8 hours, then rinsed daily for about 8 days. Fresh sprouts are quite delicious and I have to admit, it’s also fun to watch them grow so fast! If you stagger your sprout seed starting times, you could have a continuous supply. 

Milk and Juice Jugs

Here’s another packaging product that has many uses! Transparent or translucent milk and juice jugs can be used in a garden to help retain heat and moisture for your outdoor plants, which is especially helpful if the season starts off a little too cold or you live in a dry climate. For this DIY, all you need to do is use an exacto knife to cut off the top half of the jug from the bottom. Use the top side with the hole and place it over individual plants (or two at a time if they are close in proximity). Leave the lid off and let the bottle act as a mini greenhouse. 

The second great way to use these jugs is through seed starting in cold weather. This tactic is great for plants that grow well in cool temperatures (like peas, broccoli, & beans), and can be left outdoors. Use the jug as a planter by first cutting it in half with an exacto knife just like you would have with the first mini greenhouse jug. But this time you will be leaving the top and bottom attached at one corner. The bottom will be where the soil and seeds go, and the top will cover the plants like a lid, attracting heat and moisture into the jug. Once it is warm enough, the seeds will begin to sprout on the inside and the jug will protect them from night frost. 

Milk and Juice Cartons 

Cartons are also great for seed starting indoors. They are able to give a little more space than something like an eggshell, egg carton, or a seed starting container you would purchase from a store. Since Calgary can have some unpredictable weather, sometimes it can be hard to plant anything outside without a greenhouse before June. To help make spring seem a little closer, I like to start seeds in April, so carton planters are very helpful in making sure the seedlings don’t outgrow their starting containers too quickly. They are also the perfect size for easy storage on a window sill.

Clear Plastic Bags

Although some stretchy plastics can be recycled, it can also be reused for indoor seed starter covers to help retain moisture. I used cereal bags here (which are not recyclable), but you could also use tortilla packages, used ziplocs you don’t want to pitch, and even bubble wrap. The idea is to find something that will still allow for light to reach the plants but also hide them from the dry air. 

Tin Cans

Cans! Again, great for so many uses. One of my favourite ideas for gardening is actually an addition to the surrounding backyard garden space… Bug hotels! Bug and Bee hotels are very easy to make and require only a few materials including, a can, string for hanging, branches, hollowed wood, and tightly rolled paper. Bee hotels are meant for native and solitary bees, as most bees do not live in hives. Filling the cans with hollowed branches will create small spaces close to flowers and plants where bees can lay eggs and pack each crevice with nectar for their young the following season. 

Cans can also brighten garden spaces with a little paint, and become planters, lanterns or even bird feeders that can be strung from fences and trees. Transforming them into lanterns is a great way to make a citronella candle set the tone of summer evenings in the backyard. Tin cans can be pierced easily with a nail and hammer, making drainage holes for the planters and decorative patterns for lanterns.

Try making upcycled tin can lanterns, tin can bee hotels, or a tin can flower garden.

The options for upcycling packaging materials are seriously endless. Before I thrown out packaging I always ask myself, ‘what can I do with this’. Upcycling and reusing means less purchasing of something new, which ultimately reduces the rate of manufacturing for those items, resulting in less emissions, less raw material extraction in natural spaces, and less waste. This year when you are gardening, ask yourself how you might be able to use what you already have in a different way. Upcycle and reuse!


  • Sarah De Diego

    So many great ideas, thank you so much for sharing.

    I didn’t know that you could steep eggshells. I dry mine out (not because I have to but because otherwise, they’re goopy and I manually break them up) and feed them back to my chickens. I start my seeds in egg cartons as I have and receive so many of them from people.

    My son eats sprouted lentils It’s one of the only non-veggie proteins that he’ll eat. I’ve tried it in jars but it’s never worked for me. I do them in whatever I have (currently bread pans because I ran out of yeast, the horror), after one day of soaking in water, I drain and cover with a damp cloth. He eats them within a few days so I never end up putting them in the fridge.

    I’ve started to make my own salsa but I used to buy PC Salsa and the jars are amazing. I store leftovers, frozen items and seasonal or pickled veggies in them. I have two sets of mason jars that I store all my dried pantry goods in. I’ve started buying pasta sauce in the tall glass jars (look like a water bottle) and I use them for individual waters on the table (I keep 10 as there are 5 of us and one can always be cleaned) and I press a ton of apple juice in the Fall and give them away as gifts.

    I’m in Ontario so we get our milk in bags. I clean ours out and my husband uses them in his workshop and I use them for freezing meats (that won’t fit in glass containers) but a person only needs so many of them. Any ideas? They’re technically recyclable but that is the last item on my list. We have a dog and chickens so very little is left to rot.

    Looking forward to reading about more ideas and topics like this.

    Besos Sarah

    • amy hein

      Thank you so much!
      All of what you are doing sounds so amazing, and it truly makes the world of difference.
      Jars have so many great uses, and actually, you may find my post called “Rethinking Jars” of interest. I love those tall sauce jars… I don’t have too many of them because they aren’t sold at my regular grocery store, but water containers on the table is a great idea.

      Ahh, the dreaded milk bags. I grew up in Ontario so I know all too well about the issue you are talking about. Using them as freezer bags is a great thought! They would probably make great icing bags for baking too. Or if your family has a dog, you could use them as poop bags. They’d also be useful for travel or camping, packing small bottles that have the potential to leak. That’s all I’ve got at the moment. Plastic bags are so tricky!

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