Why I upcycle, and why we should all find homes for our so-called “junk”

First, let’s talk about some statistics regarding waste in the United States. Even though we only make up 4.6% of the global population, we contribute 33% of the earth’s solid waste. 80% of the products purchased in the U.S. are used once before they are thrown away.

In December, I was working as an elf (official title: decorations coordinator) for a nice company that catered corporate holiday parties and needed some extra help.

Part of my job required me to package light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and wipe off the glitter and check their batteries when they returned back from a party. Anything that did not glow very brightly was to be chucked.

But that did not sit well with this elf.

I asked my boss if we could just buy new batteries to reduce waste.

She loved the idea, but we were short on time – and it cost much less to purchase a brand new LED than to buy a brand-name battery that would last longer.

There were about 70 LEDs that would be trashed. I said I would find them new batteries and a place they could go. A few days later, I was relating this to a friend, who said she knew of someone looking for LEDs to use at church gatherings. The congregation had been using candles, but felt LEDs would be safer. She offered to take the LEDs to them.

And just like that, the LEDs had a new home — one that was not at the bottom of a landfill.


We can all upcycle that which looks like junk, but deep down, we know isn’t junk. Whether you are in a huge city or a small town, you can find someone who needs whatever you want to get rid of. Plus, it is easier than ever in the age of social media.

So why don’t we do it?

Cost. Time. Getting in trouble with the higher-ups for removing what they were going to throw away.

I am not even kidding about that last one.

From 2011 to 2013, I worked for a personal training company that staffed the fitness centers of Wall Street banks, five-star hotels, and magazine corporations. They provided towel service, but as soon as a towel had a few strings hanging off, it was labeled “old” and joined a burgeoning pile in the laundry room. These “old” towels would be washed, dried, folded, and put on a shelf — never to be used again, even though they looked just like the “good” towels.

One day, the zoo where I volunteered asked docents if they had any towels to donate for spring when a lot of baby birds were hatched and animals were born.

Eureka! Time to upcycle.

With my beat-up wheeled suitcase and an unlimited Metrocard, I went to all the gyms (I emailed and asked first) and hauled the old towels to the zoo. When that need was fulfilled, I continued hauling towels to a local mission, Bowery Mission.

Everyone asked, "Where did you get so many towels?" When I answered, they would then ask, "But what's wrong with them? They seem fine." I would respond, "Nothing. They are fine."

When one fitness center on Wall Street closed for renovations, I hauled so many towels to that local mission, it was my own workout. When I arrived with them, the employees immediately sent the towels down to the bathrooms for people already in the showers — that’s how great their need was.

In 2015, I managed a conference at NYU, and was told I didn’t order enough food.

Specifically, I was told, "We should have a lot of leftovers and be throwing it away. Otherwise, we could lose the grant."

Does that even begin to make sense? Plus, we did have leftovers — I alerted the building staff every evening that extras would be in the cafeteria after the conference, so they could come take as much as they wanted. They came in droves with Tupperware and Ziploc bags — but apparently, I was not throwing enough away.

I left that job, for that and many other reasons.

Please, stop throwing things away immediately. No, it does not have to stay and fester wherever you are — but there are so many organizations that will take your “junk” because they need it. Many will even haul it away for free.

There is just no excuse. And soon, there will be no more room for our waste.

Bring your old clothes to consignment shops and thrift stores. Donate clothes, towels, and toiletries to local missions, homeless shelters, and women’s shelters. Organizations like Housing Works even sell your donations to raise rent money for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Happy Upcycling! Earth Day is every day, but we will party responsibly on April 22nd.

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