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  • Jodi Blake

Up Your Sustainability Game With Upcycling


Woman painting a slatted chair outside

So, you have an old dresser that doesn’t match your décor any longer and some household items that you don’t have a current use for. Sure, you could set them out for trash pick-up, but you hate the thought of adding more waste to the landfill. Maybe you could donate them to the local thrift store or a local charity. Great idea to pass them on to others who can use them.


There is another option: repurposing these items for your own use or to sell to others. Maybe it’s a simple transformation like repainting that old dresser, changing the hardware on its drawers, or hot gluing some trim around a lampshade to cover a torn edge. Other upcycling projects can be more complex or even alter the purpose of the item altogether – such as using wooden pallets to build patio furniture, revamping an old suitcase into a side table, or adding lightbulbs to wine bottles to create a light fixture.


This practice of upcycling certainly isn’t a new concept; people have been revamping unwanted, broken, or out-of-fashion items into usable goods for centuries. The term upcycling, however, is relatively contemporary. It was first used by German engineer Reiner Pilz in an interview for an article in Salvo magazine in 1994 by Thornton Kay. Pilz was contrasting recycling – where items are broken down for reuse – with the process of upcycling to give old products more value. Then, in 1998 Gunter Pauli wrote a book called Upsizing (later the title was revised in 1999 to Upcycling). The concept is also referred to as creative reuse and regenerative design.


The Benefits of Upcycling 

As with any sustainability concept, the goal is to protect the planet and use its resources wisely. The main benefits of upcycling fall into these areas:


  • Minimize the extraction of natural resources. Any time we can upcycle, we reduce how much raw materials must be extracted or synthetic materials must be produced to create new products. Just imagine how many trees can be saved, for example, if more furniture is built from pre-used wood. 

  • Reduce landfill waste. Probably the most obvious benefit of upcycling is not throwing them into landfills. Not only is the growing size of the landfills an issue, but the emission of harmful chemicals and gases, such as methane, into the environment is a real hazard for the planet. 

  • Less manufacturing, fewer carbon emissions. If upcycling can minimize the need for raw materials, then it also reduces the amount of manufacturing needed to convert those raw materials into products. With less manufacturing, the amount of carbon emissions also decreases. 

  • Supports a circular economy. This type of economy is a system in which goods are used and reused multiple times instead of being discarded after one use. This more sustainable system creates products from the materials we already have.


How Upcycling Differs From Recycling 

Most of us are familiar with recycling, but how does upcycling differ? According to the EcoCation article Upcycling vs Recycling – The Difference Explained, “Recycling breaks down materials to their raw form for manufacturing, often reducing quality. Upcycling creatively repurposes items without degrading their quality, enhancing their value or function.”


Each of these waste management approaches help us reduce waste and support a more sustainable environment, but there are distinctions between them. Here are a few differences:


  • Product quality. Recycling may reduce quality (called downcycling) whereas upcycling enhances quality and adds unique value. 

  • Energy consumption. Recycling has higher energy consumption due to transportation, processing and manufacturing. Upcycling’s energy consumption is lower because there is minimal processing involved. 

  • Environmental impact. Although both approaches reduce landfill waste, recycling has a larger carbon footprint due to processing and upcyling has a lower impact because it extends the life cycle of materials. 


Painted drawers holding plants on a patio

  • Creativity and innovation. Recycling is large scale, industrial and focused on functionality whereas upcycling encourages creativity and innovation. 

  • Economic aspect. Recycling can support a larger industry with job creation in multiple sectors, but upcycling is usually seen in smaller-scale initiatives that stimulate local economies more.


Ideas for Upcycling Projects 

Let’s get our creativity revved up to do some upcycling!


Take stock of what you already have around that is crying out for a redo – maybe some glass vases, an old mirror, or some wicker baskets. You might have some old dishes you never use. We usually have several clothing items we could easily donate but could be remade into another wearable or something decorative for your house. Many of us have older pieces of furniture that need a makeover to fit an updated decorating scheme.


Perhaps you enjoy the hunt through thrift stores, clearance aisles, garage sales and charity shops for interesting treasures that can be repurposed into one-of-a-kind pieces that you can use in your home or a new-to-you wardrobe addition.


Finally, don’t forget to boost your upcycling inspiration by searching online for thousands of ideas. I especially like using apps like Pinterest. Your search criteria can be generic, such as upcycling ideas, upcycling clothing or upcycling furniture, but you can be specific about the item you have, like upcycling blue jeans or upcycling china cabinets.


Below are a few of the interesting projects that friends have completed, ideas I’ve found online, and some upcycling projects I have on my to-do list. 


Furniture


Photos 1 and 2: Before and after looks at a desk that a friend refinished for her living room. / Photos 3 and 4: The original dining room chairs and the upcycled versions with recovered seats and matching cushion. / Photos 5 and 6: An old cabinet was given a makeover and used in a friend's basement for storage.


A common upcycling project involves a piece of furniture. From less expensive particle board desks and bookcases to higher-end tables, bedroom sets, and sofas, there is a lot of upcycling potential with these items. You could pick an easy project like recovering the seats of dining room chairs or adhering paper to the insides of a cube storage unit. If you have the time, skill, tools, and supplies consider more complex projects such as refinishing an armoire or deconstructing an entertainment center into multiple smaller storage pieces.



What’s on my furniture upcycling list: I want to recover the fabric seats of our four oak dining room chairs. We removed the glass-encased shelves of the matching china hutch, leaving the drawer and cabinet base unit to use as a standalone buffet cabinet. It just needs some new hardware to update its 1990’s look.


Home Décor


Stacked painted wooden crates used as storage cubbies in a room

Home decorating items add that sparkle to a room and help us showcase our sense of style, but as our taste changes over time, it’s natural to want to refresh or rotate the items. If we can either transform them or create new ones from other items we have or found at a thrift store, then we get some new accessories to decorate with in a sustainable way.



What’s on my home décor upcycling list: Instead of buying new lamps for the two nightstands in my bedroom (hubby never wants to look at lamps with me), I’m going to try spray painting the glass lamp bases and recovering the fabric lampshades.


Garden


Repurposed metal basin full of succulents sitting on a metal chair in a garden

Don’t forget your outdoor space when it comes to upcycling. Maybe you can repurpose some items as interesting containers for flowers, veggies or other plants. You might be looking for a cool way to add some lighting to your landscaping or patio area.



What’s on my garden upcycling list: I’m on the lookout for a metal colander at a thrift store that I can spray paint and use as a hanging basket for flowers.


Clothing


Woman pinning denim fabric onto another piece of denim

One area we can certainly push to be more sustainable is with our wardrobes. Good thing that upcycling has no creativity boundaries when it comes to revamping clothes we no longer want to wear, have outgrown, or are outdated – with the bonus of reducing textile waste! So, before we take another bag or box of clothing to the thrift store, let’s see if we can repurpose some items first.



What’s on my clothing upcycling list: I want to make pillow covers from several older sweaters I never wear. I also want to add some trim pieces to the hems of some knit shirts that shrunk lengthwise in the dryer.


Let's Get Ready to Upcycle! 

Do you have a list of upcycling projects to try now? Or are you inspired to check out your local thrift store or charity shop for some potential upcycling diamonds in the rough? With some time, creativity, and skill (existing or ready to learn), we can all be upcycling pros who want to minimize waste, use resources wisely, and make our planet a bit better for us all to live on.  


 

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~ Heather M. and Jodi B.

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2 Comments


Guest
Apr 12

I especially love the garden ideas! 🌸

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Guest
Apr 11

Here’s to upcycling! Jeppe just reupholstered our dining room chairs (bought used) for the 2nd time in 29 years. Makes a huge difference! (Jan S, although you probably guessed that 😆)

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