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