Upcycling in home & office

Turning your trash into treasure

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Reduce, reuse, recycle is a simple tenet that has helped guide environmentalists and sustainability activists alike since its inception. The three “Rs” of Waste Management, as I like to call them. But, more often than not, recycling alone is a matter of media focus and we hear that we must recycle more, that the recycling rates need to go up, etc., etc. What about reuse, or, more precisely and specifically so-called upcycling, however? It rarely, if ever, hits the media and definitely never the headlines. Why not? Because it does not bring any money for the municipalities.

What is Upcycling?

Upcycling, simply put, is the process of taking “junk” , items of waste, especially packaging waste, found objects, or low-worth products and turning them into something of greater value.

When we recycle, we turn the product, most often through refinement, into another product; this sounds like upcycling, but the key difference is that recycling takes the product out of the cycle, turns it into something else, and then recycles it altogether. In recycling the shape of the object, such as a glass bottle, for instance, or a tin can, is destroyed and the material reclaimed and then remade into something else.

Upcycling turns it into something else, but without refinement. In other words, when you recycle, it changes the form of the object, but when you upcycle, the form stays the same.

When you turn a tin can, for instance, with dressing it up or without, into a pencil bin the shape stays exactly as it is; it is still a tin can, and the same it true when you repurpose or upcycle a glass jar from pickles or what-have-you into a storage jar for the kitchen, or when you turn an old bicycle tire into a belt. In the latter case you do change some of the tire though and you add a buckle but, it still retains most of the features of the original product.

So why upcycle? Why do it?

First of all it’s easy to do and turning those bottle caps into unique earrings or that tin can pencil bin or cheese grater into a pencil holder is fun. There are really just three basic steps: collect your resources, think of how to use them, and get to it. The nice thing about upcycling is that each wallet, chair, or piece of jewelry you make can be individualized. No need to worry about perfection. And each item will be unique for no single item will always be the same.

In addition to that upcycling promotes creativity and my mind, I have to say, is always on the lookout as to what I can possibly make from this or that, whether item of waste or found object.

Once you’ve got the resources, all you need is to get the inspiration and imagination going in order to turn it into anything you want; within the limits of you capability and those of the product to be converted. This is part of the reason upcycling makes such a great activity for kids.

Another great reason is that it saves money and that is about the nicest thing about upcycling. If I can repurpose and upcycle a tin can into a pencil bin by simply removing the label and cleaning it I can save money, and quite bit of that. The same when I use a glass jar as a storage jar in the kitchen or elsewhere.

It always amazes me when I seem people heading off to the store for a new “recycled steel” pencil bin at £7 a throw when they have just chucked a couple of tin cans, of which they have neatly removed the labels and which the cleaned, into the recycling bin. Not a thought that they could have simply used one of those cans instead of spending money on a pencil bin from the shops.

And you get the same with people throwing out a couple of nice big glass jars, say from dill pickles, into the glass recycling bin and then head to the shops to buy a pair of “recycled glass” storage jars. They do not even stop for a second to think as to whether thy could not employ those glass jars that came from the produce instead.

All those things and many more since you made it yourself, they are yours to keep. Why spend money on all of those things at some department store when you can spend the weekend having fun with friends or family making them. This is being frugal and creative and we need just a lot more of that and we need to get back to it, and that pronto. People used to think before they'd toss and some folks rarely did toss out things they could repurpose.

You can even use your desire and skills of upcycling to make money. I am serious here. You can always sell your upcycled products too. The truth is that quite a lot of people are attracted to upcycled style goods. How about setting up a booth at a market, if possible, or even schedule yourself a bi-weekly yard sale when you can showcase your products. Or if you cannot be that productive then do one every months or every two months.

Another great reason to upcycle is that is saves energy relative to recycling or new material production, even with recycled materials, or, as they used to call it in the former East Germany, in the German Democratic Republic, secondary raw materials.

Recycling requires shipping of waste, refinement, shipping new items back to factories to be reused, and then shipped again. Likewise, creating new products from scratch takes a long and energy intense process itself. Upcycling requires only the energy of the upcycler. The more we transition to upcycling – with whatever products we can – the less energy will be used.

The best reason of all for upcycling is that it helps the Planet, Mother Earth, in that it reduces energy need, removes waste from landfills or keeps waste out of landfills, and it supports the awareness and education of environmental principles and sustainability. Thus this makes it a desirable practice for every community and the people within those communities. It’s hard to beat beautifying the environment while having fun, saving, and maybe even making, money, while educating ourselves and our young people.

Next time you think about throwing something away, stop and ask yourself, “What could I make out of this or what could I use this for.” You might just surprise yourself.

A word of warning, and I am also serious here, and that is that upcycling and the habit to wanting to reuse and upcycle as much as possible can take over your life and your home. You will need lots of storage space for all those things that may come in handy to make something from, whether for personal use, as a gift or even for sale. Don't say I didn't warn you!

© 2011