How to Upcycle: The New Kid on the Block with Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

upcycle waste into valuable objects

Sometimes “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” feels a bit worn out. That’s part of the reason we’ve spent the past few weeks revisiting these sustainable staples, diving deep to refresh their meaning and show you new ways to utilize each. 

But where Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are the original pillars of a sustainable lifestyle, Upcycle is the new kid on the block. It’s fresh, funky, and fun, and it is another step we can take to create a more circular economy. (Psst: A “circular economy” is where materials are continuously reused, rather than harvested, used, and discarded.) 

This week we want to draw upcycling out into the spotlight. 

Wondering what “upcycle” means?

Upcycling is a way to reuse materials where the end result is actually more valuable than the previous parts. (Hence the word “up.” ☝) It’s different than simply reusing something because the item undergoes a transformation and is often used in a completely different manner afterwards. And it’s not the same as recycling, where the material is usually broken or melted down into a deconstructed state before being remade into a new product. 

To give an example: you might reuse a tin soup can to keep your screws organized, but you could upcycle it by decorating it, drilling holes in the bottom, and using it as a plant pot. In this case it has become more valuable than it was as a plain can. 

upcycle bottle

How to Start Upcycling

It’s really all about expanding your creativity, accepting that almost nothing is trash, and not being afraid to dive in and get your hands dirty. 

There are two approaches to upcycling projects. Some people like to get ideas first, then go searching for the items they need to accomplish such a project. Others prefer to wade directly into a sea of secondhand stuff and let the items themselves provide inspiration for the projects. Whichever school you subscribe to, here are some resources to help you out. 

To find upcycling ideas: 

There are literally thousands of upcycling ideas across the internet, but if you’re looking for inspiration try heading to Pinterest or Instagram and searching for hashtags like #upcycle #repurpose. Or if you have something you’re specifically looking to make try searching for #upcycledcoffeetable or #upcycledplanter. 

Another great resource is the Habitat Restore blog which discusses many different projects in depth. 

To find upcycling materials:

If you’re looking for items that are no longer wanted, cheap, and ready to be recrafted into something new, a great place to look is a local thrift store like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or SPCA.

If you have a Habitat Restore in your area, this is also a fantastic place for upcycling materials, and is especially good for finding hardware pieces that still function. For instance, if you have an idea for a lamp stand and shade but you need the core pieces like the bulb fixture, wire, and plug to make it actually work. 

And of course, don’t forget to check your own basement, attic, or garage. You might surprise yourself with what’s in there!

A Few of Our Favorite Upcycle Ideas 

upcycle picture frames

Upcycling ideas for furniture: 

Furniture is probably the most often upcycled item. Sometimes it’s enough to sand it down, throw a fresh coat of paint on it and maybe a new set of handles or knobs and you’ve got a stylish, modern dresser that fits with your other decor. 

But other times you’re really making something new out of it. Say that same dresser is cracked on the top and can’t be repaired. Instead of putting it on the curb, you remove the drawers and make them into flower boxes. Here are a few more ideas to get you inspired: 

  • Turn an old cabinet into a plant stand or coffee table.
  • Create a room divider with bifold closet doors.
  • Make custom-sized shelving with old pallet wood.

Upcycling ideas for clothes: 

If you’ve learned how to quilt, then you’re already a pro at upcycling textiles. Quilts are a common and wonderful example of creating something new and valued out of many old and worn out clothes. Here are some other ways to upcycle your clothes, curtains, and blankets: 

  • Remake the pieces into aprons, napkins, or bandanas.
  • Use old sweater sleeves to make koozies for cans or wine bottles.
  • Turn old tshirts into tshirt yarn (the resulting yarn is great for crocheting and can be made into anything from rugs to baskets).

Upcycling decor ideas: 

Your imagination is truly the limit here. Nearly anything can be turned into wall art, bookends, and paper weights. Check it out: 

  • Old window frames make great frames for wall art or a wall plant display.
  • Wine bottles and old hardware make great windchimes and tiki torches.
  • Used candle jars can be decorated to become a flower vase, pen holder, or spare change collector.
  • A picture frame with broken glass can be used to make a jewelry organizer.
  • Old cheese graters or other scrap metal with a holey pattern to it can be painted to become an earring holder. 
  • Strainers or colanders make perfect hanging plant baskets with just a coat of decorative color and some rope, twine, or chain.
  • 3D wall art like this triple star or sunburst mirror can be made from old cabinet wood or even used paint stirrers. 

Upcycling single use “trash”: 

While many upcycling projects use pieces with a solid functional base (like large furniture projects), some involve items that you might otherwise see as single-use or trash. And some of it is super on trend! 

  • Rinsed plastic straws can become beautiful air plant holders.
  • Custom drawer organizers can be made from simple cardboard.
  • Plastic bottles can be upcycled to make bird feeders, flower pots, and phone charging stations. 
  • Corks buttons and bottle caps make great refrigerator magnets. 
  • Wine corks can be cut into place card holders or pasted together as beverage coasters.

Even your Cloud Paper toilet paper tubes can be upcycled into beautiful flower wreaths

Hopefully this gets your imagination rolling. I recommend bookmarking your project ideas as you find them so the next time you have a free Saturday you know just where to start. 

upcycle mason jar lights

Where Does Upcycling Fit Into the Waste Hierarchy?

In our discussions about Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, we continued to return to the idea that the 3 R’s are in a priority specific order, meaning that reduce is the most powerfully sustainable action you can take, and recycle is the least (aside from trashing it). So where does upcycle fit? 

Somewhere between reuse and recycle. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t a perfect science, and these aren’t hard and fast rules. It’s good to remind ourselves that living a sustainable lifestyle isn’t about being 100% perfect all the time. It’s about shifting your habits and overall consumption.

But upcycling can be very fun and rewarding. It’s an amazing way to give new life to things that might otherwise be trashed. And when you make it yourself, you’ll have something completely unique that fits your personal style. It’s a fulfilling and powerful experience to look at your new shoe rack and think, “I made that.” 

So give it a try! And for more ideas on living a sustainable lifestyle be sure to check out our Complete Guide to Sustainable Living in 2022.