I know a lot of people who are interested in eco-living, and every time I mention upcycling they ask me: “What’s upcycling?” My response: “It’s taking something that you would otherwise throw out and finding a way to make it into something else.”
But then I started wondering where the term came from and if it was possibly a little more complicated than repurposing things. So I started digging, and this is what I found out about upcycling.
Upcycling is taking waste and making it into something that has equal or greater use or value. “Isn’t that the same as recycling?” I asked myself. As it turns out, no. The term was first used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things“. McDonough and Braungart compared upcycling to the “downcycling” of recycling a plastic, for example, into a lesser grade plastic. To put it simply, downcycling reduces the quality of the materials, while upcycling maintains or improves the quality of the materials.
Keen entrepreneurs have built successful businesses on upcycling. Marty Stevens-Heebner founded Rebagz to make handbags out of juice packs and nylon rice sacks. Joey Santley and Steve Cox founded ReSurf.org to upcycle broken surfboards into asphalt filler.
On a smaller scale, many of the handmade items sold on Etsy.com are made with upcycled items. There are coin purses made from sweaters, earrings cut out of vinyl records and an old travel case made into a clock, to name just a few.
And you can upcycle at home or at the office. Make an apron with the fabric from an old dress, turn a leaky rubber boot into a cute planter by adding a few extra holes for drainage, or transform a broken stapler into a modern paperweight with a little low-VOC spray paint.
Image: Will McElwain