“It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.”
― Dr. Seuss, Author
We’ve all had a torn but favourite garment that our mothers fixed with embroidery or patchwork. If you think about it — that was upcycling even before the term was coined. Although we’ve been following the process of crafting new items out of old items for generations, ‘upcycling’ as a term was first used by Reiner Piltz in 1994 in an article. Later, an entrepreneur Gunter Pauli used this term in his book, UpSizing: The Road to Zero Emissions: More Jobs, More Income and No Pollution, further popularising it. In 2002, two environmentalists, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, wrote a book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which introduced the concept of upcycling to millennials globally.
The importance of upcycling is increasing, with more people appreciating its positive impact on the environment. It also doesn’t hurt that we can save up some bucks by repurposing old products and extending their lifetime. And the bonus is that it’s an immersive and creative process that everyone can participate in. We’ll talk more about it in the following sections.
What is Upcycling?
Source: Considerate Consumer
Upcycling is the process of transforming an old or unwanted item into something new and functional. For instance, if you’ve got an old table that you’re about to discard, you can upcycle it into home decor accents. Or turning a wine bottle into a vase. It may sound a lot like DIY, and the creative process does remind one of DIY, but DIY usually also involves investing in new items or even wastage.
For those who aren’t keen on upcycling themselves, here’s some news — in today’s time and age, several upcycling artists will remodel or convert your old furniture, bags, garments into new products.
This process is often confused with recycling, but they are two different things. When we recycle, we change the form and state of an item in all essence, but when we upcycle, we embellish and offer a new lease of life to existing pieces. With upcycling, we also use fewer resources (water, energy, etc.) in comparison to recycling.
Also, the popularity of upcycling has risen to an extent where Etsy and Pinterest have it as a tag now. From a barely used and understood term even just 15 years back, the number of items tagged as upcycled has grown exponentially on these and similar platforms.
Why is Upcycling Important?
Source: Lisa Parra
The World Bank reports that globally we produce about 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Out of which, around 33 percent of waste isn’t managed in an environmentally-friendly manner. The same report states a whopping increase in global waste to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050. Most of this waste ends up in landfills and consumes around a million years to decompose — you get the drift, this is alarming. This is where upcycling comes in; apart from reducing wastage, it’s environmentally sustainable and prevents tonnes of items from ending up in landfills.
It takes around 2,700 litres of water to produce a cotton t-shirt and 3,800 litres to produce a pair of denim. And we’re only talking about water consumption; if we consider the energy required to pack and ship them, the footprint is much higher. But picture this — if we were to upcycle an old t-shirt or denim, it will be far more resource efficient. Perhaps a visit to a local tailor or an upcycling artist is all it would take. Let’s not forget how this supports local businesses and livelihoods too. Several upcycling projects and businesses offer employment to local artisans and craftsmen across the world.
Interesting Upcycling Projects Around the World
Source: Japan Today
Bucket hats may always stay in trend, but have you heard of bucket hats made from umbrellas? In Japan, a firm called Plasticity is upcycling used and discarded umbrellas into bucket hats. In Japan, umbrellas — especially, plastic umbrellas are found in abundance and owing to their low cost, more often than not, they are discarded, which contributes to wastage. This upcycling project started when a group of folks started collecting these umbrellas from convenience stores or railway stations, and figured out solutions to upcycle them into bucket hats. The best part is that since they’re made from umbrellas, they’re waterproof too.
Any home decor enthusiasts in the house? You might want to check out Ublyd — India’s first decor and furniture brand that upcycles pinewood to craft its pieces. Known for its DIY kits, this brand sources its wood from the shipping industry and so far, it has prevented 90 tonnes of wood from ending up in landfills every year. Also, they work with local artisans to handcraft their pieces.
Often the best thing about fashion is one can craft something timeless from the rejected. In Kenya, Ecosandals — a Fairtrade business upcycles tyres into footwear; the local artisans craft around 8-10 pairs from each tyre
Often the best thing about fashion is one can craft something timeless from the rejected. In Kenya, Ecosandals — a Fairtrade business upcycles tyres into footwear; the local artisans craft around 8-10 pairs from each tyre, and what’s remarkable is that these sandals last for around 7-8 years.
Source: Thomas Dambo
Denmark-based Thomas Dambo is perhaps one of the most creative designers and upcycling artists you may come across. Known for his wooden sculptures, Thomas makes use of the discarded wood around him or borrows unwanted wood from his kith and kin to sculpt wooden creatures. Apparently, he doesn’t spend a single penny to craft his pieces, and doesn’t shy away from hitting dumpsters to discover scrap wood and items. Imagination is all it takes to create is a thought he stands by.
Rede Asta is an upcycling company based out of Brazil that works with local artisans and craftsmen to upcycle pet bottles, shampoo bottles, banners, fiber, etc. Apart from encouraging the local economy, it works with global brands for corporate gifting, and to handcraft something meaningful and useful from their waste. Also, these folks are always transparent about their operations, and constantly share updates on their projects on social media and blogs.
Closer home, we have WorkshopQ. You can read about them here.
How Can You Upcycle Wisely?
It begins at home. Take a look at your surroundings to see what can be repurposed. For starters, you can look in your closet. Whether it’s a saree or a jacket — figure out how to upcycle it. While you can visit your neighbourhood tailor for ideas, we’d also recommend spending a Sunday DIYing with your loved ones. It can be a fun collaborative activity.
Source: Upcycled by Eilidh
Another way to partake in the upcycling revolution is by shopping from brands that are upcycling effectively. Refash is one such online Indian store that sells only upcycled products; you can also check out LataSita, a Calcutta-based brand that upcycles old garments into something new. This brand has been so eco-conscious that it hasn’t used a single new accessory or stationery ever since they started their studio.
Our local carpenter is another invaluable resource that we often underestimate. If you’re keen on discarding an old wooden bed or dining table, find out if a carpenter can upcycle it into a bookshelf – you’d be surprised at their skills & enterprise!
The possibilities are endless — all you need is an open mind, some creative inspiration and the imagination to transform things no longer useful into something beautiful and give them a longer life, instead of sending them to yet another overflowing landfill.