“Upcycle” is a term you’re likely to hear from that one extremely eco-friendly person in your life (in between them discussing carbon footprints and showing off their new biodegradable shoes). Yet as common as the word has become, relatively few people can say precisely what upcycling is.
What is this modern post-consumer trend, and what could it mean for you?
What Is Upcycling
Upcycling is equal parts waste reduction, thriftiness, and crafty design. Also known as “creative reuse,” it is the practice of giving new life and purpose to products that have otherwise outlived their usefulness.
Upcycling puts the mantra “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” into action.
Usually, when you upcycle something, it takes on an entirely new role from its original one. So rather than fixing it and putting it back to work, or disposing of it altogether, upcycling means transforming that thing into something new.
The following are typical examples of upcycling:
- Turning an empty mason jar into a flower vase
- Creating a quilt out of old clothes and fabrics
- Using shipping boxes as a storage solution
- Making wall art from wine bottle corks
- Wrapping gifts with old newspapers
- Constructing furniture and decor from pallet wood
Upcycling often involves Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects. For some, upcycling is a fun hobby and creative outlet. It could become a business for others who sell their crafts online or at local fairs and events.
Upcycle vs. Recycle vs. Downcycle
It’s crucial to distinguish upcycling from two similar and related terms: recycling and downcycling.
All three terms describe what happens to a product or material at the end of its original lifecycle.
To recycle is to send that product or material into a new lifecycle. Recycling is an alternative to putting the item into a landfill or disposing it as waste. Both upcycling and downcycling are forms of recycling.
To downcycle an item is to repurpose it into something of lesser quality or value. Many plastic bottles and containers can never be turned into new plastic containers. Manufacturers can use them to build low-cost benches, decking, and more. Using food waste to create compost is also a form of downcycling.
To upcycle a product is to transmute it into an object of potentially greater value or usefulness. For instance, a quilt made from upcycled t-shirts and textile waste can draw more value from the component materials. In addition, if the t-shirts themselves held personal meaning, this process can add a nostalgic touch.
Unlike any other recycling process, upcycling usually maintains the integrity of the original materials rather than breaking them down to create new materials. As a result, upcycled items generally retain high quality while adding a unique, creative twist to the end product.
What Makes Upcycling Worthwhile
Different people upcycle for various reasons. For some, it’s a passion; for others, a business. In any case, there are a few benefits in store for anyone who wants to start upcycling.
It’s a fun hobby. In its most basic form, upcycling is a craft, an art, and a hobby. Many people do it because they love to create something new from something at the end of its usefulness. For those interested in the craftsmanship of it, upcycling can help you learn to work with a wide variety of tools and materials, such as wood, glass, textiles, and metals.
It’s good for the planet. Any form of recycling is good for the planet. But upcycling, in particular, has a positive environmental impact. Many of the problems our environment faces today result from the rapid consumption cycle and the waste materials it produces. Upcycling empowers us to reduce waste, contribute less to landfills, and lower our continuous need to consume brand-new products.
It can save you a lot of money. Of course, it can’t go without saying that upcycling is excellent for your wallet! As we’ve seen, some upcycling projects are strictly for artistic or aesthetic value. Others produce objects we can use and that serve a need. In either case, each thing you upcycle is one less thing that you need to buy new. This mindset can be a significant factor in steady, reliable wealth-building.
Helpful Tips for Upcycling
Like any craft or hobby, if you want to start upcycling, it’s best to jump in, start trying things, and learn as you go. There’s no strict right way to do it, and it’s a pretty forgiving practice if you make mistakes.
However, if you’re looking for tips to help you get started on your journey of turning recycled products into new ones, here are a few ideas and techniques to point you in the right direction.
Look For Unseen Value
The most crucial skill for successful upcycling is spotting potential value others may readily overlook. Where some people see a t-shirt with a hole in it, a cracked bottle, or a faded old wallet, you might see high-quality cotton fabric, beautiful glass, and durable leather.
Learning to reuse these things effectively is one thing, but even identifying that they could be reused is a valuable talent.
Many types of value could be hiding in a spent product. Sometimes it has high-quality raw materials you could use to construct something new. Other times it’s visually beautiful, has a one-of-a-kind quirk, or holds sentimental value.
Effective upcycling means looking not just for the value something holds in its present role and lifecycle but the potential value it could offer in a new one. So before you decide what to throw away, take a moment to see what might be reusable.
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
One great thing about creating things from scrap that you might otherwise discard is that there’s not much harm in things going awry.
With many crafts, you need to be careful with your raw materials because replacing them could be costly if something doesn’t come out as you intended. For instance, an imperfect cut on a piece of metal or an expensive textile could render the material unusable. Then you would need to spend money to replace that material for another attempt.
In contrast, when you are creating something new from recycled materials you pulled out of the waste stream, there is little risk in trying new and exciting things. In the worst case, your experiment returns to the garbage where it was heading anyway.
The flow of products and materials available for repurposing is practically endless, so feel free to mess around and try new things!
Reconsider the Term “Disposable”
Think of the number of items that manufacturers intentionally design to be “disposable”:
- Food packaging
- Shipping materials
- Plastic bags
- Drink cartons, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles
- Single-use dishes and utensils
These things are often low-quality, flimsy, and have limited durability, although that’s not always the case. In contrast, some containers, packaging, and other so-called disposable objects can reveal a whole second life for them.
Just because someone designed something to be disposable doesn’t mean it’s not recyclable into something new. Glass bottles and jars, for example, have countless potential applications after they have served their original purpose.
Sometimes, you may even be able to upcycle things to avoid future disposable items. For instance, you could use reclaimed fabrics and textiles to create a tote bag to replace disposable grocery bags.
Buy for a Long Lifecycle
You can also consider future opportunities to upcycle when you shop for new products.
Similar to disposables, many modern products are designed and sold for a short lifespan. This status quo emphasizes continuously buying new things to replace old, broken, and unwanted ones. Clothing and electronics are two common examples.
The cheap materials and construction that go into many of these products often make them difficult to be repurposed into something new. Fortunately, consuming in this way is not the only option.
By practicing the habit of buying higher quality things but less often, we can raise the bar for quality in our possessions and have much better success with upcycling them down the road.
One option for this type of shopping is to visit a local Goodwill or another thrift store. Thrifting is a great way to find low-cost, reliable products with a long lifecycle.
Upcycling for Quality, Value, and Fulfillment
Upcycling is an effective means for each of us to be more eco-friendly on the road to zero waste, but it also has a lot to offer us on an individual scale. It is a rare hobby that can help you save money while simultaneously creating new, practical, and beautiful things.
There is no end to the possibilities for reusing your old plastics, cardboard, glass, fabrics, furniture, and more. With a bit of practice, you can develop an eye for recyclable materials and objects that have a past and a future. Even as you learn to spot quality and durability, you can have plenty of fun creating new things from salvaged parts.