Recycling projects of 2012

Lately, recycling stuff has been one of my favourite challenges, first because it’s not work-related (I love research challenges, but getting away for a bit is nice too), secondly because they’re the kind of thing that keep your brain just busy enough to prevent moping around, and just relaxed enough at the same time. Also, recycling saves money. It’s not quite enough to grant you a medal for saving the environment, but then, tiny gestures like this start to mean something when they’re stacked, not when you perform them one at a time, occasionally–however, recycling has the avantage of making you realise the quantity and value of what you’re throwing away, and just because of this, I think it’s valuable in itself. Plus, it’s fun!

One of my big projects last year involved making papier mache shoe shelves. We have a tiny corridor at the entrance of our flat, and it was quickly getting crowded with shoes, so the necessity of some made-to-measure shelves soon became apparent. And since we get an awful lot of ads, pamphlets and unwanted magazines in the building (not to mention the monthly newsletters from our resident Jehovah witnesses), there was plenty of material to go around without having to buy wood.

So, the results in a nutshell:

The good: papier mache is surprisingly sturdy for something made of, well, paper. It’s lightweight, too, and it’s dirt-cheap: all you need for a complete set of shelves is a box of wallpaper glue flakes, some tape and cord, paper and a couple of cardboard boxes (easily found: just ask any shopkeeper), a couple of strong poles if you can find them (bamboo is perfect as it takes forever to decay, but just use whatever you have ready at hand), and some leftover paint to make it waterproof (unless you want to have a nasty surprise the first time you come home from walking in the rain). You can choose the dimensions easily, and make virtually anything out of it.

The bad: you better have a lot of time on your hand. The more sophisticated method, which yields the most resilient material, involves gluing one or two layers of paper on carboard, letting it dry, then repeating the process four or five times. It takes forever. The other method is marginally faster, though it will still take time for large quantities: you have to mash paper to a pulp (a sturdy food processor can work, or it you don’t have one, shredding it finely does the trick too), then mix it with glue until you otbain a sticky paste that can form a thicker layer. If you’re lookgin for a project to take your mind off stuff for a good while, then great.

The ugly: unless you specifically fish for nice-looking newspapers (which is not quite the point of recycling), the results look… well, home-made, although it’s still very satisfying to end up with a reliable piece of furniture that fits perfectly just where you want it to fit. For the shoe shelves, I only had black paint, so the result looks like this:
If, on the other hand, you’re not looking for something completely waterproof and you’re ready to invest a little more time, you can get a much prettier result by adding one last layer of nice-looking paper. I made a small table for the CD player, to spare our downstairs neighbours the echo of the bass:
Looks much nicer, I think. And we’ve had it for a few years now, and it’s never given any sign of wear.

So, what you have to do to get some long-lasting shelves:

Cut cardboard to the dimensions you want, to make some horizontal “boards”, plus two strong vertical ones (you’ll need to reinforce these with bamboo, or whatever strong material you find). Make some smaller boards as well, that will be wedged vertically between the horizontal ones, to prevent the shelves from collapsing. In the large vertical boards, make two small holes in each place where you want the horizontal boards to fit. Glue two thin bamboo poles under each of the horizontal boards; the poles need to be two or three centimetres longer thn the boards on each side, so they can fit neatly into the holes of the vertical boards. It’s the basic principle of mortise and tenon joinery.

Then, spread a layer of paper-and-glue paste on top of each board (about one centimetre thick). Let it dry, weighting it down if you can, to prevent bending. Once it’s dry, reinforce it with two extra layers of paper: dip the paper in wallpaper glue, spread it out on the surface, brush with your fingers to get rid of any excess glue, repeat until the whole surface is covered. Be careful to keep the holes open in the big vertical boards. And make sure the sides of the boards are covered with overlapping layers of paper, or it risks delaminating.

Last thing you have to do is assemble the whole, keeping it together with tape and cord. It will look and sound really ricketty, but ours have lasted for a few months already and shown no sign of fatigue, so it’s actually quite strong. To make sure that it won’t collapse, you can either fix it to the wall, or simply tie one diagonal bamboo pole at the back with some cord (that will keep the whole shelves straight). Then add two or three layers of paint, a couple of layers of varnish, tell the children not to climb on top of it, just in case, and enjoy!


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