Discarded magazines pages that are transformed into vibrant holiday ornaments. Reclaimed textile waste that finds a new life as a furniture fabric. For those of us who are conscious consumers, we’re hearing a lot about upcycling these days. Let’s get a better understanding of what it means.
Recycling vs. Upcycling
Okay, let’s compare and contrast, like we did in junior high. Recycling is when you take a material and you break it down. You smash glass, melt plastic, grind paper into pulp to create a new material, often of lesser quality. Upcycling is when you create a new product from existing materials (without breaking them down), imbuing them with a new life and, often, artistic vision and environmental value. You make them better or more beautiful. Hence, upcycling.
Snare Necklace, Mulberry Mongoose
But why upcycle?
Because at some point, the energy required to create new materials from old ones exceeds the energy required to start from scratch. In other words, recycling can be costly and time consuming. There are other options.
Stitched Charcoal Bowl, Quazi Design
So, what are we upcycling?
Fabric from fast fashion, textiles of all sorts, as well as remnants, literally, from the cutting room floor. Plastic and aluminum packaging. And any number of objects that can be repurposed in their whole state…
Teardrop Ornament, Acacia Creations
In other words, you’ve probably already upcycled on your own.
That vintage soda bottle is now a vase. A Ball jar becomes a glass. A wine crate finds new life as a side table. Old photos become wallpaper.
In fact, some items are conceived to be upcyled.
Long before upcycling became a thing, the Japanese embraced the concept with their furoshiki wrapping fabric, which is designed to be reused and regifted.
Block Printed Furoshiki, Kate Austin Designs
As a material, it is one of the earliest up-cycling examples in history. At least when the hide is from cattle, which is a by-product of the food industry.
Daphne Tray, Uniqka
So, what’s the end goal?
A circular economy. That’s when resources are used for as long as possible before they’re repurposed for a different use, and their lifespan is extended. And in a perfect world, they’re biodegradable. Ultimately, less waste, less landfill, a better world.