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What is upcycling?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Upcycling is taking an item that is no longer needed or wanted and giving it new life as something that is either useful or creative. This seemingly basic concept has sparked an exciting revolution with this generation.

History of Upcycling
The term upcycle began to gain traction in the mid 90s. Then in 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ brought the term into the public eye, and solidified its use in pop culture. McDonough and Braungart were pioneers in the field of upcycling, advocating that we should all strive to extend a products life. Today, that idea is interpreted as meaning we should create from what is being discarded; whenever possible.

Examples of Upcycling
On this site, you will find many examples of upcycling.
-A gift bow made from a magazine
-A kitchen table made from salvaged barn wood
-Earrings created from old skateboards
-A girl’s skirt made from a man’s shirt
-Ballet flats crafted from newspaper

But isn’t that just recycling?
Some would say that upcycling must move goods or supplies up the supply chain while recycling does not. Others would conclude that upcycling is a physical process and recycling is a chemical process. Still other definitions state that for something to be considered upcycled there must be an increase in worth or quality. Because one can find truth in all of these explanations, we use a broad definition that includes them all. Upcycling is taking an item that is no longer needed or wanted and giving it new life as something that is either useful or creative

Upcycling Companies
It is inspiring to see all of the recent efforts in upcycling. We are seeing new companies pop up across the country founded on the very idea of upcycling. One such company is Terracycle.Terracycle collects specific trash from schools and other service organizations. They then turn that trash into useful products. Anything from plastic fencing and cutting boards to hip tote bags made from upcycled drink pouches. Another innovative upcycle company is Upcycle Living. The creative folks at Upcyle Living design and build prefabricated living and work spaces from old shipping containers. This Arizona Company was founded in 2008 to “provide people with affordable, quality, green housing options.” Their buildings are not just eco-conscious but low maintenance and attractive. They join the ranks of companies like Enviroglas. This spectacular company takes glass bound for the landfill and converts it into elegant hard surfaces and landscaping materials. This Plano Texas Company offers a variety of beautiful products. From durable terrazzo to custom countertops, each is unique and made from 100% recycled glass.

Why has Upcycling become so popular?
The increased awareness of environmental responsibility and a slow economy has led to a major increase in upcycling. The college student short on cash may upcycle their out of fashion jeans by adding a few seams and rips instead of buying a new pair all together. Home owners are looking for ways to renovate with salvaged, and in some cases, free materials. The green mom on a budget may upcycle her old clothes into clothes for her children. This innovative spirit and environmental consciousness has led to upcycling in nearly all areas of life. From green companies to your Mother’s kitchen, people are looking to save money and the planet. Upcycling does both.

How to Upcycle
This site will be constantly updated with new and innovative ways to upcycle every day products into something you can use. Before buying something new, we consider what we already have that can be upcycled to meet our needs. Before throwing items into the trash bin, we consider possible other uses. We can learn a lot about upcycling from the past. Before trash pick-up was available and goods were designed to be thrown away, nearly everyone upcycled in one way or another. Consider life during the Great Depression. Industrious housewives re-used and repurposed as much as they could. Old dresses were fashioned into aprons. Rags were made into rugs. Left over food was turned into tomorrow’s lunch or composted into a natural garden fertilizer. By learning from our past and focusing on what is best for future generations, everyone can be successful at upcycling.


  • Ann said:

    Hi. I’m doing a project for my engineering design class and was curious as to whether I could use information from this article? If so, I was wondering what to cite for the author…since that is a key point to the citation. Thanks a bunch!

  • Jill (author) said:

    Please contact us at info@upcyclemagazine.com and we can share this information with you.

  • Nicola said:

    Wonderful article. Not sure why it’s taken me till now to find it.
    I just love to upcycle and have started a small home business doing just that.

  • susan said:

    thank you guys were a really big help

  • Alisha Grinus said:

    I began using the term upcycling 5 years ago when I too started creating upcycled crafts I cant believe it has taken so long for people to finally understand what the word means.

  • Karla said:

    Great introduction with clear information and ideas. I would love to use this to introduce upcycling to my class in New Zealand as we focus on Crerative Reuse this term. Smiles, K

  • Jill (author) said:

    Great! Please email us info@upcyclemagazine.com if you have any questions.

  • R.B. said:

    A co-worker shared the idea of upcycling with me a few months ago and after reading your post, I feel like I’ve been upcycling used shipping pallets for custom furniture for five years now. Thank for the insight.

  • Arnie S Tahir said:

    It’s not a trend yet in my country but i’ve started to do some projects on my own and love the idea. Thank you for the article.

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