Upcycling is a common-sense act that’s finally been given its own name. It’s an act that counters our throwaway culture, and applies at those moments when we decide not to chuck away an object because we don’t need it anymore (like something that’s broken) or because it’s served its single-use purpose (like a jam jar).
Recognising the potential these objects still have shows that whatever we’ll do with them will be preferable to rotting in a landfill or going through the high-energy-consumption rigmarole of recycling (if that’s even an option in your area).
Wikipedia gives this definition for upcycling: “the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products perceived to be of greater quality, such as artistic value or environmental value.”
What differentiates upcycling from reusing is its creative dimension, and that the object’s new incarnation may have more value than its initial form and use. Reusing (ie, non-creative reuse) may sound less glamorous, but is equally important in reducing waste, and should be considered alongside upcycling.
Seeing potential in everyday objects is not only a rewarding exercise in imagination, it’s a positive civic and environmental act.
Large-scale upcycling campaigns
Such common-sense actions, which would have been normal and essential for our grandparents, are themselves being upcycled by companies. However, their intentions may be either genuine actions towards sustainable, circular production systems making the most of the discarded materials that still have value – or for PR purposes alone. But spotting the difference between genuine sustainability and PR is another story.
Taking cues from individual initiatives and a growing public fondness for creating less waste, companies are running their own upcycling campaigns. For instance, this shoe company wants used shoes back so materials can be repurposed, while this car company wants to upcycle discarded materials from automotive manufacturing and scrapping into jewellery, jumpsuits, bags, and assorted other clothing. Even discarded ingredients are being upcycled into food, and coffee grounds into biodegradable plastic. Ocean plastic is becoming shoes, phone cases, records, and cardigans – and the list keeps growing.
However, hoping that entrepreneurs will make something useful with all the available rubbish is just a dream: we produce more waste than we have the capacity to recycle or repurpose. The above initiatives are still uncommon, and seen as quirky one-offs that won’t last.
But even if we were to stop producing plastic and reduce waste, macro and micro upcycling would still be a necessity: the oceans are already choking in garbage, landfills are leaking toxins into the soil, and while burning non-recyclable garbage might seem like a good idea in a cold winter in a small Scandinavian town (where individuals recycle and reuse more than the average human), it isn’t a global-scale solution.
Small-scale upcycling and reusing
While waiting for companies and policymakers to tackle the waste issue, we can do our bit in our own homes. Upcycling can be fun, save money, and inspire others, creating ripples of change.
So, before donating or recycling the single-use or everyday objects in your house, see if there is anything else to do with them. The upcycling ideas below might help:
Glass jars and bottles
Ordinary glass jars are one of the most common objects that end up unwashed in the bin – yet they have more potential than most household objects. You don’t have to paint them, or make them into candle-holders or lamps; why not use them as containers for homemade jam or sauce or whatever you please?
Glass jars and bottles are accepted in most bulk markets and are the best containers for pretty much everything, from dry foods to liquids. Decanting dried foods and spices from their plastic or paper bags into glass jars will keep them safe from damp and insects. Instead of buying a sprouting container, use a large old jar and a piece of cloth instead. If preserving or fermenting for the winter, simply wash out old jars instead of buying new ones. You can even drink from jars. And the list goes on and on. 🔄
Though glass can be 100% recycled endlessly, transporting such heavy material to a recycling centre, and the process of making second-generation glass objects is energy intensive, creating its own ecological footprint.
Fast fashion or not, some clothes and textiles will become unwearable or unusable, even after mending and repairs. Theoretically, all textiles can be recycled, but in practice this only happens to a small percentage.
Turning them into cleaning rags is a good way to repurpose fabrics, but you can also upcycle most clothes, towels, and sheets.
No matter who the author is, don’t put books into recycling or rubbish bins. One of the main reasons is that the glue that binds most books would mess up all the other paper recyclables in the container.
Another reason is that books can be effortlessly donated to charity shops, your local library, sold, or just gifted to others to read. Their value transcends their materiality. Sure, charity shops can end up with so many copies of certain books that they ask people to stop donating, but that’s the exception.
Assuming it’s in a terrible state and none of the above solutions can be of use, you might consider upcycling an old book into something else, like broaches, jewellery boxes, clutch bags, sculptures, or even Christmas trees (which may just be a temporary re-purposing of many books).
👉 Good to know: Books are usually recycled separately, but the whole process is, again, energy-intensive (for example, breaking down the paper into fibres necessitates water and chemicals to remove the ink and adhesives). And, ultimately, only a small percentage of the material becomes new, low-quality paper. Even within the recycling process, a lot ends up in landfill.
All too often, cardboard boxes are thrown away – unless we plan to move soon and need them for packing. They’re bulky, and the way we open them – or sometimes the way they’ve been handled or sealed – makes them unsuitable for further use. But before you flatten one out, are you sure it can’t be of further use?
During the lockdown, a friend made her toddler a house with doors and windows out of used cardboard boxes. The kid was over the moon (and didn’t care about the lack of fine fittings). Once no longer needed, the cardboard can be easily recycled or reused for less creative purposes, like covering floors when repainting the house. 👉
By contrast, imagine getting rid of a plastic playhouse…
Any piece of paper – from the mail, printer, or office – that has some space to write or doodle on, and isn’t a confidential document that needs shredding, can live on as scrap paper. It’s shocking how much paper we throw away without thinking twice: bills, bills’ envelopes, promotional material in white, brown, and recycled envelopes, magazines, A4 receipts from deliveries, old calendars, old notebooks… Due to space limitations you may have to recycle some, but keep the good quality stuff; save it in a box or a drawer and you’ll never have to buy another shopping pad or to-do list again.
This is basic reuse, but you can also upcycle scrap paper.
I made tiny pockets of paper from a 2019 Studio Ghibli calendar. The sturdy paper was hardly used, as many days remained blank, so it made no sense to throw such a beautifully crafted object away when its main purpose (to record information) had been only partially fulfilled.
You can do the same with unused annual diaries or agendas. It’s a mindful action, too, and can be done while unwinding. And that’s another great thing about upcycling that’s often overlooked: it can be a relaxing activity. It’s easy to get creative with paper, rather than chucking it away, especially if you’re into arts and crafts.
But don’t get me started about the wad of clean napkins tucked into the takeaway bag, which so often gets chucked away with the leftovers.
👉 Good to know: Paper is versatile as a recycled material, but has a limited lifespan; its recyclability is lowered after each use, so the average amount that it can be recycled is five to seven times.
Pots and pans
Cooking pots, metal, plastic, plant pots, aluminum cans… Reuse and upcycle these as much as possible, if you have the space and inclination to harvest your own greens and spices from the windowsill.
My mother upcycled this 👇 more-than-40-years-old soup pan – a wedding present – into a planter for Bellis perennis. She didn’t even have to drill any holes in it for drainage; time had taken care of that. But drainage is probably the best advice for anyone upcycling cookware into plant pots.
If you have the tools and skills, like this guy, you can take upcycling pans to the next level.
If you can’t think of anything to do with them, leave them outside your door. Some people collect metal to sell as scrap. Or dispose of them according to the recycling rules in your area.
Barrels and wooden crates
People with gardens have more space to store unwanted objects for further assessment, but can also end up with larger objects in need of upcycling. This project in Ireland is a great example of upcycling unwanted wooden structures by turning them into kids’ libraries and play spaces.
It won’t always be possible to create treasure from trash, but it’s beyond doubt that there’s no end of trash to treasure in our consumerist societies.
What else have you upcycled in your own house?