My Grandmother, the Original Recycler

By Felice Prager

My Grandmother, the Original Recycler

I often say my grandmother was the original recycler. Even before the days of recycling bins for soda cans, my grandmother could find uses for things that others simply threw away. She was a recycler before people were attempting green living and discussing sustainability. She recycled before people were “Saving the Earth.” She was a recycler before it became fashionable to recycle. In the Fifties, when others were throwing things out and buying new and better, Grandma was finding new uses for old things. Perhaps it was that she lived through the Depression or because of her days in Europe when she had nothing but a desire for a better life, but Grandma could take someone’s garbage and turn it into a very useful item – at least it was to her. We made fun of her, and often her antics would embarrass us, but Grandma was smarter than all of us. She even insisted upon having an extra room in her apartment just to store things she was afraid to be without. She always bought extra rolls of toilet paper and cans of soup – “just in case.” In fact, my dad and uncles were able to stock up for all our families when she died, and they cleaned out her apartment. Nowadays, with warehouse-like stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco, her name often comes up. “Grandma would have loved this place.”

English not being her native language, it seemed so awkward (and entertaining to us) when this little woman would sift something we had just thrown out from the trashcan and say, “Waste not, want not!” It was almost as if she knew something the rest of us didn’t even think about – yet. Grandma would wash the item well and put it with the rest of her recyclable treasures. “It will have use – someday. You will see and laugh at yourself for making fun of your poor old Grandma!”

She had cabinets filled with washed out bottles and containers from the delicatessen. My father would tell her, “Throw it away, Ma! I’ll buy you containers from the store,” and she would respond with, “I might need it someday. Keep your money in your pocket for a rainy day.” I remember after she died, when we were cleaning out her cabinets and closets, my father saying, “Ma would kill me for this,” as he discarded another plastic vat or glass jar.

But Grandma was good. If a second life could exist for an item, she would find it. I remember the first time I brought a McDonald’s shake up to her apartment. “Don’t throw that plastic stick out!” she said as I was about to discard the straw and cup. I can use it to hold up my plants as they grow.” When Baggies came on the market, she was overjoyed with the concept of those twisty-ties. “I can wrap them around straws to keep my plants from falling over.” All of this was in her broken English. I remember going to her apartment one time, and her hair was twisted around straws and held in place with twisty ties. “Sure,” she said, “You spend your father’s money on fancy rollers. I don’t need them to make my hair pretty.” And she was beautiful with her tight ringlets.

Grandma did not need to buy new “gizmos and gadgets” as she called them. On her windowsill, she had an empty tissue box filled with birdseed. The birds did not care where the seeds were kept just as long as Grandma filled her homemade feeder. When we took her places, if we had drinks in disposable plastic cups, Grandma would collect all the cups in her oversized handbag and take them home, rinse them out and dry them. “It’s bad to waste,” she would say. I do not know if she ever drank from them, but I know she used them as plant starters – a little soil and a seed. She also used them to sort her threads, pins, needles, snaps, buttons and beads for the handiwork she did. “I can’t see small things,” she said, “This makes it easier on my old eyes.” The first time she saw me playing with Silly Putty, her reaction was, “When your Silly Pooooty gets old, save the egg. I want it for hooks and eyes.” When Leggs used egg-shaped containers for pantyhose, I was warned to save them for Grandma.

Old toothbrushes were never discarded. They were perfect for cleaning silverware, jewelry and those little spots Grandma kept spotless – the cracks and crevices her older fingers could not clean very well. I once saw Grandma standing on her kitchen stool. With a piece of my grandfather’s old undershirt tied around a toothbrush, Grandma was cleaning her chandelier.

Times are different now. There are so many more disposable items. However, I think a little of my grandmother rubbed off on me. Often, I will find myself standing at the trashcan holding an item I am about to throw out, thinking, “Hmmmm…maybe I can use this for SOMETHING!” Mostly, I have been using my grandmother as inspiration during these tougher economic times – trying to remember things she did to help us make ends meet – with her memory as my role model and inspiration.

About this writer

  • Felice Prager Felice Prager is a freelance writer and multisensory educational therapist from Scottsdale, Arizona. She is the author of five books: Waiting in the Wrong Line, Negotiable and Non-Negotiable Negotiations, TurboCharge Your Brain, SuperTurboCharge Your Brain, and Quiz It: ARIZONA. Her essays have been published locally, nationally and internationally in print and on the Internet. Learn more at

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave your mark with style

Comment in style

Stand out from the crowd and add some flare beside your comment.
Get your free Gravatar today!

Make it personal

avatar versus gravatar Close