As I move along in my zero-waste lifestyle, one thing I haven’t gotten very much into is crafting with recyclables or, as it is often called, “upcycling.” Part of it is just because of how busy my days are as a frum woman with children at home and a full-time job. Part of it is my own fault; once my kids got old enough to entertain themselves, I would counter complaints of “I’m bored” with an offer to find some chores for them to do. They learned that their own imaginations could keep them occupied, but we didn’t develop the habit of crafting together, as many moms (and some dads) do.
But the biggest part of my block on this area of low-waste livin has my own mindset. I have more saved videos and Pinterest pages of crafts that use things that would otherwise get thrown out than I know what to do with. Still, the unattainable idea of being “zero-waste” has held me back, even when I knew it wasn’t the goal for me. “Oh, I’d think, that’s a cute little iPhone stand made from a paper towel tube, but the added materials mean it’s no longer recyclable and will wind up in the trash at some point. That narrow focus has left me waiting for a truly zero-waste crafting opportunity to come my way.
I’ve been reading a book called Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living by Nicole Caldwell, and just this week, I came across this gem of wisdom that shifted my thinking my eyes: “When you upcycle a piece of trash and turn it into art—or better yet, functional art—you’re showing everyone around you what power creativity has: the power to keep trash from landfills, to inform, to influence, to inspire and to bring more beauty into the world.” While a lot of art is created under my roof, most of it is my daughters’ and husband’s. I’m holding onto this idea from Better as I go back through some of my saved crafting ideas.
With this inspiration, I hope to be making more arts and crafts with trash, but I do have a zero-waste craft project to share. One of the perks of working in the building I work in is that the florist on the first floor often puts leftover flowers out by the back door that anyone can claim. From time to time, they’ll also put out potted plants and plant holders. Over the summer, they put out two boxes of clear glass votive cups. A few disappeared the first day, but three days later, about 40 of them were still sitting outside but had been moved next to the empty flower boxes destined for the dumpster. I grabbed them and brought them home, thinking they would be perfect for a small vort or bat mitzvah. Cleveland has a few gemachs that loan or rent simcha items. The first gemach I called wanted the cups, but they didn’t want the candles in them. It took about 45 minutes, but my daughters and I were able to pry the candles out.
(A quick tip for cleaning wax off glass and some metals: Cover a cookie sheet with paper or cardboard from the recycling bin. Turn the waxy item(s) upside down and place them on the cookie sheet. The cookie sheet goes in the oven at the lowest heat setting for five to seven minutes. Remove the items with oven mitts and wipe down with a schmatta you don’t mind throwing in the garbage can.)
So the gemach had 40 new votive cups, and I had a big bag of broken candles that I proceeded to stick in a corner and mostly forget about beyond having a goal of doing something with all that candle wax. Fast forward to Chanukah. I bought my husband a new menorah, and the wicks I had for his old menorah weren’t the right kind. With that reminder of the bags of broken candles I had been ignoring, I gathered some empty votive cups from my basement, the wicks, and some lavender I had dried from my garden and got to work making candles. The menorah wicks were covered in wax and couldn’t be put into the votives until the melted wax started to cool a bit, and it took a few attempts for me to get the hang of pouring wax from the aluminum pie plate I had saved from a store-bought crust to melt the old candles in.
I ran out of both lavender and votive cups when I still had half a bag of broken candles, so I grabbed a box of baby food jars from my glass jar stash and lemongrass essential oil, which I put on the wool dryer balls I use to avoid dryer sheets and cut drying time, to add a little scent. Today, I’ll drop a few of those candles off by the person who was nice enough to give me the jars. I have used them in all sorts of ways: for small amounts of leftovers, making single-serve sauces and dressings, and more. In the end, I did come up with a mostly zero-waste project—I chucked the pie pan and the wax-filled schmattot I had made from worn-out clothes. But how many possibilities had I ignored trying to reach an unachievable level of perfection? Low-waste life is largely a matter of opening your eyes and seeing the options that are right at hand, and I had missed out on quite a few.
When I was newly frum, I hosted a Shabbos guest who told us about the ordeal of finding a missing pair of tefillin that belonged to an elderly Holocaust survivor. The owner had kept them safe through those dark years, but they were accidentally thrown in the trash by a janitor who was cleaning up his room and didn’t look inside a plastic bag before tossing it. After some truly incredibly hishtadlus that led her and a handful of searchers to the place in the municipal dump where the nursing home’s trash had been emptied that day and time spent searching through the smelly, dirty mess until they genuinely couldn’t stand it any longer, she turned to Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes’s formula for finding a lost object. The missing tefillin were found within a minute.
After Shabbos, I wanted to find out more about Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes and his prayer for finding lost objects. I imagined an intricate incantation, but of course, after giving (or pledging to give, if you are in the middle of a landfill at the time) tzedakah one focuses on the story of Hagar finding the water something that was right at hand to save herself and Yishmael, but that she just couldn’t see:
Rabbi Binyamin said: “Everyone is presumed to be blind, until the Holy One, blessed is He, opens their eyes,
as it is written, ‘God opened her eyes [and she saw a well of water], and she went and filled the skin.’”
I am thankful always to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for opening my eyes to the possibilities found in things that could be easily viewed as worthless and for leading me to see the possibilities in low-waste crafts and upcycling.