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Recycling by design

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Kristin Jordan's handbags are made entirely of crocheted plastic bag strips. This one was made from Target bags. (Photo by Ben Peterson; Courtesy of Kristin Jordan)

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Kristin Jordan's handbags are made entirely of crocheted plastic bag strips. (Photo by Ben Peterson; Courtesy of Kristin Jordan)

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Gulnur Ozdaglar's plastic chandelier is made from 200 "petals," each of which is soldered with a pattern. (Photo courtesy of Gulnur Ozdaglar)

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Gulnur Ozdaglar's flower brooches are made from clear plastic soda bottles and colored with permanent ink. (Photo courtesy of Gulnur Ozdaglar)

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This blue-tinted bowl with flowers was made from a single plastic bottle by Gulnur Ozdaglar. (Photo courtesy of Gulnur Ozdaglar)

You’re at the checkout. In your cart are packages of strawberries, a few prepared meals in plastic trays and some containers of yogurt. Bottles of soda and water, too. Your groceries are loaded into plastic bags and you’re all done with shopping. But food isn’t the only thing you’ve purchased. You’ve also bought quite a lot of plastic, and you aren’t alone. Americans use billions of tons of it every year—which leads to the question of what to do with it all.

For about 25 years, recycling has been the answer. Programs continue to grow across the country, and according to the American Chemistry Council’s most recent data, a record 2.3 billion pounds of bottles and 830 million pounds of plastic bags were kept out of landfills in 2007 and reincarnated as new products.

While those figures seem impressive, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that only about 37 percent of plastic soda bottles were recycled in 2007, and less than 30 percent of water and milk bottles. Many other plastic items can’t be recycled at all in most communities.

With all of that plastic around us, unconventional forms of recycling are also becoming more common. A growing number of eco-conscious citizens are enlisting their time and their artistic abilities to bring plastics recycling far beyond that mundane trip to the curbside bin. They call it “upcycling,” a term coined in the 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.” It refers to the conversion of waste material into something of greater use or value.

Why bring the groceries home in a plastic bag when you can use a stylish tote that’s made of plastic bags? And what about enhancing that outfit with a colored plastic brooch, or lighting your living room with a chandelier made from plastic “petals”? Etsy.com, an online store for handmade goods, now lists hundreds of inventive, eco-conscious creations. All of sudden, recycling moves closer to art, and being responsible about plastics is anything but boring.

Meet Micki Josi, a 33-year-old Oregon-to-New York City transplant who helps turn yogurt containers into toothbrushes. She and a group of fellow volunteers meet every Sunday morning to clean and sort plastics that are not recycled curbside, which they then send to an earth-friendly housewares company that converts them into useful items. Josi’s volunteer work means that at least some of those unwanted containers will be recycled—upcycled, actually—but she doesn’t stop at that. At home, the upcycling becomes even more creative, and all it takes are some markers, a toaster and memories of childhood.

“Back in the 80s, kids used to buy these toys called Shrinky Dinks, which were sheets of plastic that you could draw on and then put in the oven, where they would shrink down,” Josi said. “I figured that I would give it a try using one of those rigid plastic takeout covers.”

Using Sharpies, she draws or traces designs on the clear covers, punches a hole in the top, places them on parchment paper, and then slips them into the toaster oven for 30 seconds at 250 degrees. The plastic shrivels down to the size of a charm, and with a hook inserted through the hole, Josi has a unique, homemade earring.

For her Shrinky Dink projects, Josi can only use plastic No. 6. Plastic numbering, which is mandated in 40 states, identifies items as one of seven different types based on chemical composition. The numbers are usually found within a triangular recycling symbol on the item’s underside. While a growing number of municipalities across the country are now recycling No. 6 plastic items, which include yogurt and takeout containers, the majority, including New York City, do not—which encourages Josi to be creative.

She needs to be aware of the numbers to make her earrings, but when the numbering system was developed in 1988, it was primarily intended to assist municipal collectors in sorting. According to Jennifer Killinger of the American Chemistry Council, the numbers tend to generate confusion for the lay person. “We tell people to just recycle all of their plastic bottles and not even worry about the number,” she said. “Bottles are usually made of the types of plastic that are most widely recycled, so it makes sense to get out the message that way.” For the recycling of other items, though, numbers and local regulations must be taken into account.

For that reason, Josi argues that people should never ignore the numbers, and learn them instead. Creative projects can help. “It’s not like you can just pick up any kind of plastic and make a Shrinky Dink out of it,” she said. “You kind of have to know what number you are looking for, so as you get into doing fun things with plastics, you learn more about plastics recycling and what is accepted in your community.”

For Kristin Jordan, who sells handbags that are made entirely from crocheted plastic bags, doing something artistic did lead to greater environmental awareness. “Recycling wasn’t my primary motivation when I started,” Jordan said, “but it has been the cart before the horse, really, and it has made me more green.” Her business started a year and a half ago when she tried to kick a smoking habit and was looking for something to keep her hands occupied. When she saw plastic-bag-crocheting on the DIY Network, she found was she was looking for.

“I can attest to countless nights devoted to cutting plastic bags into strips,” said Jordan, who is a lawyer by day. The strips are then carefully tied together and crocheted into totes. Each uses about 35 plastic bags, and can take well over 10 hours to make. Jordan sold more than 40 of them last year at $70 or $80 each.

“People are buying them because they think ‘Wow, what a cool way to get plastics off the street,’” Jordan said. “It’s not the fashionable aspect first, and I know that because when it’s Earth Day, my sales spike.”

Recycling of plastic bags, most of which are No. 4s, is rarely done curbside, but has increased in recent years with in-store collection programs. California, Rhode Island, New York, and the city of Chicago have all passed legislation mandating such programs. But Jordan doesn’t foresee any shortage of “plarn,” or plastic yarn, in the near future. Her relatives ship her boxes full of bags from around the country, and co-workers regularly drop off their supply on her desk. The only time she ever ran out of bags, she recalled, was when she first started: “I used every bag in the house to make my first few handbags, and then, when I went to walk my dog, I realized I didn’t have any left!”

Creative upcycling is not only confined to the United States. Gulnur Ozdaglar, an architect in Ankara, Turkey, has taken the trend to new heights. With the help of an open flame, scissors, a knife and a soldering iron, she transforms soda bottles into brooches, necklaces, vases and even plastic “petal” chandeliers, which sell for $250. Her pieces were recently featured in a well-known Turkish design store, and she is now working to win the sponsorship of environmental organizations in her country.

“Recycling is not one of the bigger issues in Turkey, as we are dealing with unemployment, human rights and more, but I think it is everyone’s responsibility to live without harming the earth,” says Ozdaglar. “I, all of my friends, and all of my neighbors, did not put one single bottle to waste last year. I make something out of all of them.”

Her work, she said, represents something that is at once personal and public. “I see this as my very personal answer to filling the world with waste, as well as the statement that we should all be against throwawayism.”

E-mail: rbs2130@columbia.edu