Halloween How-to: Make a Spooky Skeleton Out of Recycled Milk Jugs!

Halloween requires skeletons. (And so does El Dia de los Muertos, for that matter…) If you’re on a budget but like to decorate, or you’re crazy about recycling, or you’re the crafty type who loves to add custom flair to everything, or you just want to see if you can do it, we’ve got a project for you!

Using recycled gallon and half-gallon milk jugs and some other simple materials, you can make your own reusable skeleton decoration to hang in your tree or around the house for spook season. Read through this easy procedure and watch our how-to videos for a clear example. Make one or make several, depending on how much milk your family drinks…


This homemade decoration is almost like the real thing! Photo by: Jason Schaefer


A minimum of nine plastic jugs – at least three of them gallon-sized


Hole punch

String, brads or pipe cleaners

Sharpie permanent markers or paint

Decorative bits (glitter, sequins, buttons, etc.)

Optional – High-temperature glue gun for punching holes


Three notes before you get started:

  • If you are making a second skeleton, you can probably use your jugs more efficiently than listed here and therefore need less.  If you are making this skeleton for the first time, I have asked you to provide 9 jugs (at least three of them being gallon-sized) so that you don’t have to work quite so hard to get a completed product.
  • The high-temperature glue gun works FABULOUSLY for punching the holes in the milk carton plastic, but I don’t recommend this method if you are a) working with younger children or are b) me because I absolutely burned myself. If you can get a volunteer in, they can sit and make the holes for the students pretty quickly.
  • If you are nervous about what you are doing, you can always sketch out your pieces with a Sharpie. Once you have them the way you want them, use rubbing alcohol to remove the Sharpie lines.
  1. Lay your hand or a template of a hand over the handle of one milk jug and trace.  Reverse the template or use your other hand for the second milk jug. Carefully cut the hands out. Save the extra bits.
  2. Repeat step one for the feet.
  3. Using a fifth and sixth jug, cut an extended oval out of jug around the handle, being as generous as you can with the oval. You can always trim it later! These will be the shoulder bones or scapulae. If you are clever, you can use the leftover bits to make your rib cage in step 9 as well.
  4. At this point, you should have two hands, two feet and two shoulder bones and a pile of left over bits.

    Where on the family tree would you place this skeleton? Photo by: Jason Schaefer

  5. Punch holes near the wrist portion of the hands and the ankle portion of the feet. Punch a hole in each end of the shoulder pieces.
  6. Using the leftover bits of your first six jugs, sketch out some bones. These should be basic stick shapes with lumps at each end. You will eventually need eight bones (four longer pieces for leg bones – two for each leg – and four shorter pieces for arms – two for each arm). Make them as long as possible. Once again, you can always trim them! In the example, my long leg bones crossed the jug diagonally to give them some extra length. With careful placement, I cut two long leg bones (and two knee caps) out of one of the leftover jugs.
  7. On a seventh jug, sketch out a skull (should consist of two large round eye sockets, an upside down heart or triangle for a nose and squares or ovals all lined up and touching for teeth). Use the two surfaces opposite the handle, and the jug should be upside-down. The neck of the jug will end up being the neck of your skull as well. You can add details as you see fit. It is also optional to cut the face out.
  8. Punch a hole in each side of the “neck” of your skull jug.
  9. Use your eighth jug to make a rib cage. You need to leave the neck of the jug as this will be the attachment point between the “hips” and the “ribs.”  That being said, cut out the handle of your jug so that there is a pretty big hole on one side of the jug.  This will be the front side of the rib cage. The neck and opposite side will represent the spine.
  10. To make the rib cage vaguely more accurate, cut some mostly horizontal strips out of the sides of the jug to leave the impression of ribs. The strips you cut out will become the empty spaces between the ribs. You will have to imagine that you are leaving a two inch vertical strip from the neck of the jug up the back to the bottom and down the front to the hole. This will act like the spine and the sternum. The horizontal strips you cut out should leave the two inch vertical strip intact.
  11. To make connection spots for the ribcage portion, cut two slits in the bottom of the jug on each side of the center. Then punch a hole on either side of each slit (for four holes total). Then punch two holes in the neck of the jug. If you are looking into the hole you created when you removed the handle, you will punch the one hole on the left of the neck and one hole on the right of the neck.
  12. To make hips, cut off the bottom of a ninth jug about two or three inches up. The example has a reinforced ring of plastic around the bottom and that was used to approximate the cuts. Round the corners of the jug and make the sides dip closer to the bottom of the jug.
  13. Punch holes in two opposite corners of the “hips.” 
  14. Cut a slit in the bottom of the “hip” piece and then punch two holes on either side of each slit (for four holes total). This is where you will attach your rib cage.
  15. Cut out two rounded corner squares from whatever leftover bits you have. These will be the kneecaps of your skeleton. Punch two holes in each that are opposite of each other.
  16. After you have everything cut out, you can make the parts interesting by drawing designs on all the bones in glow in the dark paint or Sharpie. Feel free to decorate your skeleton in either traditional Halloween or in the lighter and more decorative Dia de Los Muertos calacas style.
  17. Using a flat surface, align all the parts, making sure that you have the right connection holes punched out. Then connect all the parts together using the string, yarn or wire. Poke two holes in the top of the head and tie a loop that you can hang your skeleton from. From the top down, you should connect the pieces as such:
    • One shoulder piece to each side of the skull jug neck. Make sure they are facing the same way.
    • Tucking the ribs under the shoulder pieces so they stick out a bit, use the same skull jug neck holes to attach the rib cage. You will use the holes you created in the bottom of the rib cage jug to do this.
    • Connect your arm bones to each other and then to the shoulder.
    • Connect your hand to the end of the arm. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.
    • Connect the hip jug (bottom only) to the neck of the rib cage jug. You will use the four holes in the hip jug to connect to the two holes in the neck of the rib cage jug.
    • Connect the upper leg bones to the knee caps. 
    • Connect the knee caps to the lower leg bones.
    • Making sure they match, connect the legs to the holes in the side of the hip jug.
    • Connect the feet to the lower leg bones. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.


    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    The beginning of the school year is an exciting time for teachers and students alike. We have a quick science activity here that will engage  new students and make your room too cool appropriately cool for school: Shrinky Dinks.

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    There are myriad of ways you can use this activity, so the application is up to you, but I am envisioning name plates or name tags, zipper pulls for pencil bags, cubby or tote markers, key chain fobs … the possibilities are endless!


    No. 6 plastic
    Sharpies, colored pencils, or an inkjet printer
    Oven or toaster oven
    Parchment paper
    Non-insulated baking sheet or flat piece of cardboard
    Hole punch


    The first thing you need to do for this project is to gather is No. 6 plastic, also known as polystyrene. Polystyrene is hard and clear and often used in protective packaging like deli containers. While it can be tricky to recycle, recycled polystyrene can be used in manufacturing rulers, license plate frames, vents, switch boards, and thermal insulation items. Oddly enough, No. 6 plastic can also be whipped into a foam and made into Styrofoam.

    For this example, I saved a bunch of lids from aluminum takeout containers, but you can use just about anything that is rated No. 6.  If you want to make an image that will shrink evenly, you will need a piece of plastic that has been stretched evenly. Corners, cups and edges can be unpredictable because they are stretched and molded in multiple directions.

    “Plastics are made of long chain-like molecules called polymers. Because polymer chains are so long, they can be manipulated to create a wide-range of properties — in this case for No. 6 plastic, polystyrene. Polystyrene is a thermoplastic, meaning the long polymer chains are heated and stretched, then cooled to form the plastic sheet. The polystyrene remains in this “stretched out” state unless something causes it to change. The cool thing about thermoplastics is that upon reheating the plastic, it reverts to its original state, in other words, it shrinks. This is the same process used to “shrink wrap” items like food containers or other products that have protective plastic wraps.” Lori Steward, Middle School Science

    I decided to try something different this time, so I cut the unpredictable edges off my plastic lid in order to get a flat piece of plastic I could trim and run through the printer.

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    (If you decide to use sharpies in your project, you can give your students a piece of plastic and a set of sharpies and let them get to work. The sharpie will adhere to the plastic with no problems. If you want to use colored pencils or an ink jet printer, you will need to scuff up your plastic so that there is a bit of texture for the color to stick.)

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    I knew I wanted to cut around the outline of my long-horned beetle, but for students you might want a standard shape like rectangles for name tags or zipper pulls. You might also consider using a die cut to make a particular shape — like circles or the school mascot.

    If you want to attach a cord or a ring to your shrink dink, you MUST punch a hole in it BEFORE you bake. The standard sized hole punch shrinks considerably.  I always have the urge to use a smaller hole punch, but then I can’t fit anything through the remaining hole.

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    Before baking.The larger hole is a standard sized hole punch. The smaller hole is a mini punch.

    SO! After I ran the plastic through the printer, I trimmed around my shapes. The “painted lady” was easy as it was a rectangle, but the beetle was trickier.  Since No. 6 plastic is pretty thin and brittle, corners are delicate. You can see in the picture that I had a bit of a problem around the beetle’s tarsal claws. No worries though; the plastic gets tougher as it shrinks.

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    Now get out your baking sheet. I like putting a piece of parchment paper down on the baking sheet to protect the surface that you might otherwise put cookies on, but it isn’t totally necessary. If you do decide to use parchment paper, it has a tendency to curl, so you may need to wad up the paper and flatten it back out before using it.

    Place your decorated plastic on the cookie sheet and place the sheet in the oven to bake the plastic for 2- 3 minutes on 325 to 350 degrees. Each oven is different, so watch closely!

    Danger Note: You are already working with heat, but you might also be working with a possible human carcinogen. No. 6 plastic has been found to leach styrene, so if you choose to do this craft make sure it is in a well-ventilated area!

    You will see the plastic curl up and then flatten back out. Wait about 30 seconds longer than you think you need to. Then wait a few more. It is extremely tempting to take the shrink dinks out before they are totally ready, but waiting longer than necessary doesn’t really hurt anything. So resist!

    Occasionally your shrinky will decide to stick in a single spot. Not to worry! When you pull the items out of the oven, immediately use something hard and flat, like the bottom of a pie pan, to press out any uneven spots. If you aren’t quite satisfied, you can actually stick your shrunken piece back in the oven and reheat it until it is soft.

    Once you remove the piece from the oven, it cools very quickly, so you can handle it almost instantly. I usually pull the cookie sheet out, flip the piece on the kitchen counter and press it flat for a few seconds. By the time I have done all of this, 30 seconds or so, the piece is ready to hold.

    How much shrink can a shrink dink shrink? About this much.

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    The image on the left is the starting size and the image on the right is the finished size.

    Final product!

    Educator How-To: Recycled Plastic Shrinky Dinks

    The road to self-sufficiency: How cities are transitioning to renewable energy — and how Houston can, too

    What would it take to go all renewable?

    What would it take to use exclusively renewable energy resources? What would you have to add to or take away from your home? How would your life change? For most of my energy entries, I’ve talked about conservation at the individual level. That’s because I know we can make changes in what we do and how we view the world. However, it is always heartening to see large groups take up the challenge. And while a nation should have a plan, unless its citizens are behind it, it will never work.

    That’s why I’m glad to report on some cities and regions that have made a plan to go to 100-precent renewable energy or beyond.

    The District of Rhein-Hunsrück in Germany has a population of about 100,000. It uses a combination of wind, solar, and bio mass to produce 100-percent renewable energy for its area.

    For most, that would be a good place to stop. But it has plans to increase renewable energy production to 828 percent of their needs by 2050 so it can export the energy to its  neighbors. (Well done!)

    In the 1990s, it decided that it would take the money it used to import energy and invest it locally to become energy exporters. Its first step was energy conservation. Just by doing some energy conservation in its buildings, it was able to cut heating needs by 25 percent (something that is very energy-intensive in places that have weather other than “hot”).

    German wind power

    The city of Dardesheim, also in Germany, uses solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass to produce 40 times as much energy as it uses. How did it do this? Back in the 1990s (it takes time) the community decided on a shared vision to create jobs and eliminate the importation of energy. While it only has a population of 1,000 (100 times smaller than  Rhein-Hunsrück), it created a vision and made a plan.

    And it isn’t only cities in Germany that are coming up with a renewable and sustainable path for their energy future.

    For example, it’s expensive to import oil to the Island of El Hierro, off the northern coast of Africa. To replace the oil it uses to generate electricity, it will move to a combination of wind, hydro, and solar power. With any excess wind energy, it’ll be able to pump water uphill into an inactive volcano crater. This gives it a little energy storage. This will let the 10,000 people who live on the island save 40,000 barrels of oil a year.

    But what about a little closer to home?

    In 2007 San José, Calif., pledged to become a renewable-powered city by 2022. It was the first large city in the United States (around 1 million in population) to make such a pledge. Its plan had 10 points (not 12). It also has a website where you can view its progress. While it has had the most progress in diverting trash from landfills to waste to energy plants, it has made the least progress is in planting new trees. Fortunately, that’s fairly easy to do.

    But what about Houston? What is Houston doing?

    Houston is becoming greener in leaps and bounds. Houston has been granted a number of awards and distinctions for its green programing, such as being named one of the top 25 solar cities by the Department of Energy, the Green Power Leadership award from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Best Workplace for Commuters award from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

    Sure, while it’s good to toot our own horns, we should not rest on our laurels. There is an initiative (and funding) to help income-qualified Houstonians weatherize their homes. We have free, regular electronic recycling and paper shredding programs to reduce waste. While Houston is making strides, we should remember not to be too self-satisfied with what we’ve done.  Rather, we should dream bigger and dare more boldly.

    What should Houston do next?

    Still yearning for Earth Day learning? Join us April 28 for HMNS’ museum-wide celebration!

    Founded in 1970 to commemorate the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day (April 22) aimed to capitalize on an emerging national consciousness about the natural world and channel the energies of anti-war protests in a new direction.

    earth day

    Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator, conceived the idea of a national holiday devoted to environmentalism after a devastating 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif. With bipartisan support, the first-ever earth day inspired 20 million Americans to hit the streets and pour into public parks to rally for sustainable living.

    Earth Day eventually lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts — but the battle for our earth is far from over.

    Keep the celebration going at HMNS this weekend with Mobilize the Earth, a museum-wide event that teaches participants how to make their lives more sustainable and do their part for the planet.

    Register an act of environmental service and join with Keep Houston Beautiful and the Hermann Park Conservancy to clean up the green space just north of HMNS, play around in recycled art at the booths inside our Grand Hall and learn about recycling, energy and water conservation.

    What: “Mobilize the Earth” Earth Day celebration
    When: April 28, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    Where: HMNS grounds at 5555 Hermann Park Drive.

    To purchase tickets to Mobilize the Earth, click here.

    To learn more about Billion Acts of Green, click here.


    HMNS thanks the Marathon Oil Corporation for their continued support of the HMNS Energy Conservation Club, which sponsors HMNS’ annual Earth Day celebration.