Upcycling is defined as the act of taking discarded materials and turning them into something useful beautiful, or just plain cool. But definition aside, what is upcycling? Is it really just taking old stuff and finding a new use for it?
The short answer to that question is both yes and no. Upcycling is the act of reusing old stuff, yes, but it’s also so much more than that. At it’s core, upcycling is a way to reduce the amount of waste we produce by turning items destined for the landfill into totally unique furniture, wall art, and anything else you can imagine. Even old barns are finding new use in the forms of their planks as high-dollar tables and wall paneling.
Surging in popularity during the mid-90’s, upcycling is now the subject of it’s own magazine and countless internet posts and project guides. Upcycled materials can be called ‘reclaimed ’, ‘recovered’, or ‘repurposed’. These buzzwords are often found in design magazines and heard on home improvement shows, but they all mean basically the same thing: the materials have been saved from the trash heap and turned into design treasure. Upcyclers often source their materials from flea markets, yard sales, antique stores and even junkyards, but you can literally find materials anywhere. Oftentimes calling around to these various places will give you a better idea of what materials are available in each location.
The term “upcycling” can apply to any project using reclaimed materials, but often for a different purpose than the material was originally intended for. Wooden shipping pallets are often converted into attractive coffee tables or couch frames. Doors can be halved and used as tables or unique headboards. An old tool box can be turned into attractive planters. Old coffee cans might find new life as a hanging lamp shade or a hanging garden planter. Sweaters that are no longer worn can be transformed into pillow covers or mason jar cozies. The humble wine cork can be turned into a micro planter for savory herbs, a corkboard, or even a fishing lure. Technically, a container home would be the epitome of upcycling! These few examples are some of the millions of projects the ambitious upcycler can undertake. The only real limit is the availability of materials and the creativity of the builder.
But why do people upcycle? Why not just buy the thing you need instead of salvaging the material and making it yourself? The answer is simple- upcycling saves money and is great for the environment. As a bonus, any upcycled items you create will be totally one of a kind, as opposed to furniture produced in mass quantities such as IKEA. In this age of mass-produced furniture hegemony, a unique piece can really stand out from it’s mass produced neighbors. Even smaller projects such as the wine cork planter lend a whimsical and singular touch to your home’s decor. Having fresh savory herbs will also be a tremendous addition to any of your recipes.
Next time you need a piece of furniture or are simply feeling the urge to create, consider the upcycling alternative. It will save you money and give you the chance to create something useful and beautiful. As an added bonus, you’ll own a piece that is truly one of a kind.