Don't be alarmed if you visit the home of Kathleen McGowan and her parents in Farmington Hills, Mich. Those ubiquitous black, squiggly things you see all over are not some horrible parasitic infestation; they're the plastic hangers that department stores use to display socks. McGowan, 24, an unemployed dietitian, has found so many creative ways to recycle them that the American Plastics Council, a Washington-based industry group, awarded her the $3,000 first prize in its National Plastic Reuse It Contest. Her winning ideas ranged from sock-hanger jewelry to garden row-markers to hair curlers.

"My parents taught me that if you have a use for something, why throw it out?" says McGowan, the second of three children of an automotive designer and a homemaker. "They recycled and reused a lot before it was the in thing." As for the prize money, she has figured out a use for it. Some of it will go to pay bills. The rest? She'll just sock it away.