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10 Can Revamps

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Who knew chili could help you organize your junk drawer? 10 aluminum can upcycling ideas may have you rethinking dinner prep.


I made my favorite dinner, chili, the other day. The recipe goes somewhat like this: Sauté a chopped onion. Add a can of crushed tomatoes, a can of black beans, a can of kidney beans, and part of a can of tomato paste. Open a can of black olives for a topping, and, if I’m in the mood, a can of chopped green chile peppers. In the end, I’ve got a big stack of empty cans next to the sink ready to be rinsed out and put in the recycling bin.

That’s not bad news, since aluminum is actually one of the most recyclable materials around — it’s 100% recyclable, can be recycled again and again, and the process is speedy; it takes less than 2 months for an aluminum can that’s recycled to end up as another aluminum can1.

Even better news, though: As any quick search on Pinterest will reveal, aluminum cans are just as reusable as they are recyclable. They make for excellent craft projects as well as storage, and I’ve got a few preferred ways to reuse revamp them. Before I share my top 10, though, I should note that if you want to get in the habit of reusing your aluminum cans, it’s worth investing in a can opener that won’t leave sharp edges (something like OXO’s Good Grips Smooth Edge Can Opener).

1. Hold utensils. Paint the can or decoupage it with pretty paper, and use it as a pencil holder or a kitchen caddy for small utensils. A larger can, like one used for coffee, could make a holder for wooden spoons, spatulas and other larger utensils.

2. Bake bread or cakes. Clean aluminum cans with labels removed can be used for baking bread or cakes, to get perfectly round slices ideal for sandwiches. It’s actually a classic method for preparing sweet brown bread, but can be adapted for other quick bread, yeast bread or cake recipes. Be sure to use cans that aren’t coated with BPA.

3. Use as a scoop. A cleaned can is just the right shape and size to use as a scoop for dry pet food in a bulk bag or bin or potting soil for gardening.

4. Make windowsill planters. Use cans with cute labels, or soak off the labels and decorate the cans yourself. Put a handful of pea gravel in the base for drainage, and then fill with potting soil and plant with small succulents or even herbs. Line them up in a sunny window — the size of the cans means they’ll fit perfectly on a sill.

5. Store bits and pieces. Where you store your craft supplies, sewing notions or hardware, use tuna or pet food cans to store nails, bolts, bobbins, brads and other small items. Use plastic can lids (look for them at a pet food store) to cover the containers and keep contents safe.

6. Make lanterns. Clean cans, fill with water and freeze (so that you can punch the holes without bending the can), and punch out designs with a hammer and awl. You can make hanging versions by fashioning a handle out of wire, or you can punch out a hole in the bottom to wire it with an electric light bulb. Or just light them the old-fashioned way, with tea light candles.

7. Organize a desk drawer. Small, shallow cans, like those for pet food, olives, and water chestnuts, make great holders for paper clips, staples, binder clips and other office supplies.

8. Give them to a school’s art room. Many teachers find plenty of uses for them, such as holders to organize colored pencils, markers and brushes, cups for paint water or, for the smallest cans, containers for mixing paint colors.

9. Knit something. Fashion a can into a knitting loom with a few basic hardware-store finds. You can use different sized cans to knit tubes that can be turned into hats, wrist warmers, doll clothes and more.

10. Make a cute flatware caddy. Decorate three cans by wrapping in fabric or paper, and glue them together with a glue gun, or wrap them tightly with rope or yarn. Fill them with forks, spoons and knives; it’s a cute and organized way to present them at the end of a buffet, or to tote them out to a patio table for dinner al fresco.


How do you reuse aluminum cans? Share your ideas in the comments below!
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Jessica Harlan

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Every Monday, I'll be here to share one, two, three… sometimes even ten! eco-friendly ideas at a time, so we can all do a little bit to save the Earth.

When I'm not making lists, I'm taking care of my two daughters, volunteering in my community, and writing articles about food and cooking — I'm the author of three cookbooks: Ramen to the Rescue, Tortillas to the Rescue, and Quinoa Cuisine (co-written with Kelley Sparwasser), and my fourth, Homemade Condiments, will be available in Fall 2013.


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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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  • Susan Z. 3 years ago
    The cans you are showing are made from aluminum, there made from steel. My father worked for American can company years ago and was taught about the process of making cans including soda cans *which are made from aluminum. Since my can open opens the can safely with no sharp edges. I spray painted them and created a ghost, scarecrow, witch, Frankenstein, mummy and the Tin man for the kids next door as a Halloween treat with 6 miniature candy bars inside, Next year they can use them to decorate the=ir house. For Christmas I want to make more to use as gift boxes for the gift cards.
  • Robert K. 3 years ago
    Great ideas, thanks!
  • marie l. 3 years ago
    Throughout the year we save our large coffee cans. For holiday gifts we make my mother's famous Pumpkin Bread recipe, baked in the cans. They make an amazing domed appearance and the the top crust is heavenly. Wrapped and tied with a bow and a sprig of holly they are a favorite gift to give to our family and friends and a special way to remember my Mom.
  • Jamie D. 3 years ago
    Musical instruments!!!! Tin can band.
  • Sue W. 3 years ago
    Great ideas and will use them often. Thanks everyone!
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