Upcycling is a process of reusing byproducts, unwanted materials and waste for sustainable and productive purposes. The purpose may not always be functional. The purpose could be aesthetic or accentuation, such as using an old product or some material in a creative way to enhance the décor of a room. Upcycling is not recycling. It is a distinct form or variant of recycling, just as downcycling.
Upcycling vs. Recycling
Upcycling, downcycling and recycling are very old practices. These terms have been well defined post the industrial revolution and have become relevant ever since climate change and environmental damage have become one of the major threats to the wellbeing of the planet and the very survival of various animals and plants species. Humans have reused various materials in different ways for hundreds of years. Humans have broken down stuff into its components, only to reuse them and build something else.
Recycling is a process of turning waste into usable products. These refurbished products may or may not be reusable without recycling. The philosophy powering recycling is simple. Any item, natural or artificial, can still be usable after its primary purpose has been served, unless the material is beyond use or is hazardous. In case of many products, some of the components can be reused and some have to be discarded. Recycling takes care of that too. Upcycling is a type of recycling but it does not involve the breaking down of a product into its components and then making a new and perhaps a completely different item.
Upcycling takes a used, unwanted or wasted product and utilizes it in a way that does not compel one to throw it away and it can still serve a purpose which is of some value. The philosophy powering upcycling is similar to that of recycling. The objective is to make the most of available resources. Upcycling prevents consistently increasing wastes produced by humans. Many items that are discarded every day cannot be recycled. They end up damaging the environment. If some items are not hazardous and hence do not actually contribute to climate change or environmental degradation, they still take up space in landfills and disposing those stuffs through incineration or other process will produce toxins that cause pollution.
Recycling typically breaks down a product to obtain its reusable components. This calls for an extensive process, which often has byproducts or waste materials of its own. Hence, recycling does not have a nil carbon footprint. It is true that the carbon footprint of recycling is less than that of manufacturing or producing something from the raw materials that are procured through environmental deterioration. In some cases, a product in its entirety is recycled and ensured it is safe before reuse. It is better to keep using materials that have already been produced and hence have caused the damage to the environment so subsequent degradation is not initiated or carried out.
Upcycling is actually even better than recycling. Since recycling does involve breaking down of the discarded or unwanted materials into basic components and then there is a manufacturing process where hybrid products may be created, the whole system still requires energy, infrastructure, chemical processes, transport or logistics and packaging among other procedures. Upcycling requires none of that. It simply reuses what is already produced, often in an as is condition and at times with a bit of accentuation that usually does not have any bearing on the environment. Cutting, reshaping or repurposing an old item does not have any adverse environmental impact. Painting or decorating any specific item using safe materials does not have any adverse impact on climate. Disposing materials and continuing to do so have far-reaching ramifications.
Benefits of Upcycling
Millions of people in the country practice upcycling. Billions do so around the world. People do not upcycle simply because they are told to do so or they are conscious of climate change and the damage being caused to the environment. Upcycling is a habit for many. It is often done for financial reasons. Reusing an old item for a new purpose without having to buy a product is definitely wise from the financial perspective. People choose upcycling as an obvious and rational option. Take for instance the reality of hand-me-downs. Parents choose this route for their second born, third born and thereafter. Young siblings or cousins often practice it. Friends and even adults often share stuff. This may not have anything to do with the environment and more relevant in terms of financial planning or just the urge to share something two people like. Yet, there is a positive impact on the environment and climate.
• Upcycling conserves our environment and contributes to slowing down climate change. It can keep hazardous materials away from landfills, soil, air and groundwater. Decomposition of materials adds to pollution. Upcycling prevents this and reduces the quantum of waste a town, city, district, county, state, country and the world needs to manage.
• Upcycling makes optimum use of available resources. We live in a finite world. The universe may or may not be infinite but our resources are limited. Reusing wood, metal, glass, plastic and all other materials you may have at your home, office and everywhere else is a wise way to maximize the utility of the limited resources.
• Upcycling can contribute to inflation management by reducing the production cost of different types of materials or items. If demand goes down, there is an excess supply and that will bring costs down. The supply will be better regulated in due course of time, complying with the demand, and that will lead to reduced stress on procurement. Most procurements cause great stress on the environment and leads to exploitation.
• Upcycling is good for any local economy. Many local enterprises cater to upcycling. They can create interesting and utilitarian products using old items. Upcycling itself is a creative process. It stimulates innovation. People find new ways of using old items. Some people actually have developed this into a hobby and they keep looking for interesting ways to use long forgotten items. The whole exercise can be fun and for the entire family. Children in particular love toying with old stuff and if the end result is of value then the reward is more than satiating.
How to Practice Upcycling
Every household has products, materials, items or just stuffs that are lying unused, perhaps unwanted or not needed anymore, possibly forgotten too. Some items may be gotten rid of during the next de-cluttering exercise. Some items may be hard to get rid of. Some items may have emotional value. Not all such items are reusable but many could be. Upcycling does not make much sense if you cannot actually reuse old items. Fortunately, there are hundreds of ideas that have been proven to be practical. You are not limited to these conventional and unconventional ideas. You can use your imagination and explore creative ways to repurpose and reuse old items. Let us explore some practical ways to practice upcycling.
• You can use an old suitcase as a chair or stool. If you have an old ladder, it can serve as a shelf for books and other items that are not too delicate or fragile so would not break if they fall or get displaced. An old chair can become a shelf too. If you were or are a bibliophile and you have plenty of books, these can be stacked up to form shelves, tables and platforms for different everyday chores.
• You can make lamps out of bowlers, mirrors out of rackets, broom out of a plastic bottle, room divider out of hangers, a bookshelf or a large organizer box out of a piano, a couch out of a bathtub, chandelier out of wine bottles or a drum kit, aquarium out of an outdated television, sink stand out of a bicycle, wall hooks out of wrenches, mailbox out of an old computer, guitar picks out of credit cards, fence décor out of glass marbles, tea lights out of bottle caps, picnic table out of skateboards and pendant lamps out of bottles.
• Some upcycling exercises require a bit of reengineering for repurposing. Some upcycling exercises are more straightforward. You can use broken or bent silverware for hooks or pulls in drawers. You may also use them for wind chimes. Glass bottles make great soap dispensers. All you need is a little pump. A cheese grater can be used to keep your earrings. You can paint the grater to make it funky and cool or any other aesthetic sensibility that appeals to you. Old cups can be used to keep jewelry. Jars made of glass have been used as vases for centuries now. They also make useful containers to store anything from foods to supplies.
• Old trays or pans can be used as an organizer. You do not even need to use them in a drawer. Simply have them somewhere around that you can access whenever you want. Colanders can be used as planters. They even have the holes so you do not need to worry about drainage and aeration of the soil. Tubes of different kinds can be used as seed starters. You can use some tubes as amplifiers. Make your own speaker if you have the skills.
• You can use bottles, be it of wine or beer or other beverages, for various decorative purposes. You can use glass bottles for landscaping too. You can make holes in the ground and insert the bottles upside down, to an extent that only a bit of the base is visible. This is not unsafe as the installation can be leveled at the ground. Distinctly colored bottles will also create an awesome lighting effect along the edge of your lawn or garden. You can use them along driveways, in your backyard or anywhere that does not pose any risk.
• Old furniture can be repurposed in a myriad of ways, including fixtures such as doors and windows. Doors can become a table with some legs. You can make these legs from strategic cutouts of old windows. Discarded drawers can be used for concealed storage, may be under your bed or in the garage. You can install wheels on larger drawers to make them more convenient to access. You can mount old drawers on the walls, of course after some painting or decorating.
• Door knobs can become wall hooks. Old furniture can become interesting again with a simple arts & crafts project. Old clothes can become cleaning essentials. A shutter that is no longer in use can be a display for a wall. Window frames can become frames for pictures. A fire pit that is no longer in use can be transformed into a miniature garden. Tires can be hanging planters, ottomans, swings or just a decorative element if you entertain your imagination.
There are many types of fixtures and furnishings, especially those made of wood and metal, which can be converted into various utilitarian items. Anything vintage should be retained and used for its sheer sophistry. Something as simple as an unused hose can be used to create a sprinkler. There is enough room to explore various ideas. They do not have to be the most sensible or extremely practical. The purpose of upcycling is not just limited to reusing old stuff. It is about contributing to conservation of the environment, doing a bit to prevent further climate change and to save some money by not buying a new product if an old one can serve the purpose.
Like most things in life, upcycling too takes a while for anyone to get accustomed to and increasing familiarity will also trigger more imagination. There comes a time for many people when upcycling becomes a habit and for some a passion. The creative pursuit has its own rewards. The other benefits then become secondary. Whatever is your priority or preference, give upcycling a chance and you will not regret it.