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Turning Waste into Gold: Is Upcycling the Best Kept Secret in Recycling?

March 10, 2015

What is Upcycling?

Unless you’re a frequenter of the vintage handmade-craft site Etsy or the image sharing site Pinterest, you might go your whole life without ever hearing the term ‘upcycling’.

Coined in the mid-1990s, the neologism is German-born. Reiner Pilz—speaking about European waste disposal systems in an interview published in 1994—said, “Recycling, I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling where old products are given more value not less.

But a 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart popularized the idea among English-speaking audiences.

Upcycling, put simply, is a certain type of recycling that involves turning waste materials or useless objects into something of higher quality than the original products.

For Every Up, There is a Down

Pilz’s other coinage, ‘downcycling‘, is upcycling’s diametric opposite: waste materials or unwanted products are converted into new products which are of lesser quality. McDonough and Braungart posit that most recycling is actually downcycling.

Take for example recycled plastic, which is melted down and mixed with other plastics, resulting in a hybrid product which is not as strong or durable as the original plastics from which it was manufactured.

Yet even the recycling that could be called “downcycling” is better than throwing away recyclable waste and straining our overfull landfills. According to a 2008 statistic by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a staggering 93 percent of plastics were not recycled that year. This amount of waste puts a huge burden on municipal waste systems.

The History of Upcycled Goods

Upcycling is not only limited to industrial application, nor is it the concept behind the term a new idea.

The early 20th century saw the rise of an avant-garde art movement, Dadaism, which blurred the lines between what we viewed as “trash” and “art”. Marcel Duchamp—who had a conflicted relationship with the movement—fashioned found objects into ‘readymade’ pieces of art, using everything from an old bicycle wheel to a metal coat rack.

Marcel Duchamp Bicycle Wheel Early Upcycling Example

Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade “Bicycle Wheel”

Upcycling, though certainly not called so at the time and motivated more by necessity, had been a staple of many American families during the Great Depression. The grim scarcity made for the frugal and resourceful an outlet for creative reimaginings; anything that could be re-used or re-purposed was spun into something new and useful.

Inventive and industrious housewives would sew used flour sacks into dresses and skirts for their daughters. Leftover dinner scraps would be composted into rich fertilizer. Rags and disparate pieces of fabric were stitched together into quilts or rugs.

How Can You Upcycle?

Almost any everyday item that is trash-bound can be upcycled. Old CD holders can be used to store sandwiches or bagels. An empty soda bottle can be upcycled into a plant watering can by punching a grid of holes in the cap. For those sartorially inclined, a bobby pin can make for a fashionable, if eccentric tie bar.

Upcycling is all about being as creative as possible. It is the greenest form of recycling, as waste is not trashed, but re-formed into something exciting and completely novel. Not only is it wholly sustainable and healthy for the environment, but if you have a passion for it, you could make some extra cash by selling your upcycled designs.

Photo credit: spDuchamp via compfight

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