Our two cats are a bit picky about toys. We've tried all sorts of mice sold at the big pet superstores, and the only one they ever showed any partiality for was a little stuffed critter covered in black-and-white spotted fabric. Winnie loved that little mouse, but she kept batting him under doors and furniture where we'd have to retrieve him, and at some point he got completely lost. And, of course, the store no longer carried any like him, so we've never been able to find a good replacement.
The only other pet-store toy they really liked was these little spirals, which are just pipe cleaners encased in sheaths of colorful fabric. Both cats would bat enthusiastically at these, and run after them when they went skittering away across the floor; when they caught one, they'd lie down and clutch it in their paws and pull at it until it came uncoiled. It was very cute, and I appreciated the fact that it distracted them from gnawing on other long narrow objects that they might otherwise take a shine to, like my computer cables.
Unfortunately, they played with these toys so energetically that they quickly wore holes in the fabric covers, and the pipe cleaners came poking out. Once that happened, we no longer felt safe letting the cats play with them unsupervised for fear that they'd hurt themselves on the wire or even swallow part of it. (It may sound like we're just being paranoid, but several reputable pet sites, such as Catster, warn about this as a danger, and we have read horror stories about cats being rushed into surgery over a swallowed pipe cleaner.) I tried stitching the fabric back up, but they just tore it open again, and eventually we had to give up on the toys.
We tried to get more at the pet store, but they were no longer available, and we couldn't even find anything similar online. The closest we could find was this larger blue spiral, but the cats didn't seem to appreciate it like the fabric ones. It's made of a much stiffer material, and when dropped, it just lands on the ground and sits there; it doesn't bounce or roll in the same unpredictable way that made the pipe cleaners so appealing (like having real prey to chase.)
We made several attempts at making our own spiral cat toys, but they didn't work too well. Brian tried taking a piece of wire from a coat hanger, which he thought would be less hazardous, and sewing it up in a piece of scrap fabric—but like the blue coil, this toy was too stiff and stable to interest them much.
I thought a pipe cleaner might be okay if I could just wrap it up securely in one of those stretchy fabric bandages they use at the blood bank—but once I'd wound it several times around the pipe cleaner, it was too thick and ungainly to make a very good coil. Plus, Brian was still concerned that they'd manage to get the wire out from under the wrappings, so he didn't want to let them have it without supervision.
So one day, in a desperate attempt to come up with something to distract Winnie from the computer cables, I hit on the idea of trying something similar with a strip of newspaper. I just tore off a long strip from the edge, like this...
...and twisted it up into a long, thin string, like this.
I wasn't able to make this into a coil shape like the original fabric spirals, because it wouldn't stay put, but I found just tying it into a little bow made a lightweight shape that the cats enjoyed batting around. It seems to move in the same random way as the pipe cleaners, so they like tossing it, catching it, grabbing it, and generally amusing themselves without supervision. They also like to pull on the ends and try to untie it, but if they succeed, that's no problem; I can just grab it and tie it back up in a minute.
Needless to say, these little paper toys don't hold up all that well. After being subjected to claws and teeth for a week or so, they get pretty limp and ragged-looking, and they're not as much fun to play with. But that's okay; when they wear out, they can just go straight into the recycling bin (or the compost, if they're really torn to shreds) and I can easily whip up a new one in a few minutes.
So this is pretty much the ultimate ecofrugal cat toy. It costs nothing, it's made entirely from scrap material, and it can go right back in the bin when it's worn out, creating no additional waste. And if the cats don't love it quite as much as the spirals, they will at least occupy themselves with it long enough to let me get some work done.