After. Image credit: ChopValue

Why should wine bottles be thrown in landfill, or even collected for recycling, when they could be made into a chandelier?

Why throw out old car tyres when they could enjoy a new life as garden planters?

Why let the council collect your used tin cans when your kids can make them into decorated pen-pots?

If you’ve ever embarked on a craft project using “waste” or unwanted materials, you’ve already had some experience with upcycling.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is a new name for an old idea. It basically means transforming an unwanted item into something different and better, something with added value. It contrasts with recycling, which breaks down the item into raw material and then that material is used to make something else – theoretically the same kind of product, e.g. a glass bottle would be melted down and the raw glass made into a new bottle.

However in practice some recycling could be better described as ‘downcycling’ as in many cases the raw material is actually used in a lower-grade application, such as aggregate for road construction. Recycling saves energy and materials and cuts waste and pollution – so it’s always preferable over landfill or incineration.

But if a product can be upcycled it’s even more sustainable as it needs only a fraction of the energy, and the end result is of more economic and aesthetic value as well. Although essentially a traditional common-sense practice that people (especially less wealthy people) have done around the world for all of human history, upcycling is currently undergoing a resurgence in the UK and US. Crafty bloggers, bespoke artisans and inventive start-ups are leading this contemporary trend. It appears to be inspired by creativity, sustainability, “voluntary simplicity” and money-saving.

The experts over at Hipcycle say simply:

“Upcycling is the process of converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often beautiful”.

Why upcycling matters today: climate change and dwindling resources

It might be an old idea, but upcycling has a critical significance in the 21st century. 2016 has been the hottest year on record - again. Recently each passing year has been the hottest year since records began – a reminder that climate change is continuing unabated, with over 1C of warming already locked in while emissions continue to rise.

The global Paris Agreement compels governments transition to a net-zero carbon economy so we can stay below the dreaded 2C of warming – or even higher. As well as the climate challenge, continued economic growth, growth in consumption and rising population levels are all putting unprecedented strain on the planet’s resources.

Finite resources like minerals and metals will get scarcer, more expensive, and ultimately new sources will run out at some point. Renewable resources are being used way faster than they can be replenished. All of this means from now on we’ll need to become far smarter about how we use resources.

Another sustainability buzzword at the moment is 'circular economy' – an economic system where materials are kept in circulation in natural biological cycles or industrial-technical cycles, and waste is designed out. Upcycling is a key part of the wider circular economy model. Upcycling holds opportunities for sustainable economic development and green small businesses, and is also a fun activity for crafty individuals and families. With enough creativity, you can make some amazing things for your home, in whatever style suits your personal taste, with whatever you have lying around.

5 impressive examples of trash-to-treasure upcycling transformations

1. Paint stirring sticks into a mirror – Decorating Cents

This blogger collected free paint stirrers from a department store, covered them with a wood stain and used them to make a simple small round mirror into a striking decorative mirror.

Before and after. Image credit: Decorating Cents

Before and after. Image credit: Decorating Cents

2. Apple crates into cubby shelves – Theas’s Mania

Another simple yet ingenious creation if you like eclectic style - this blogger painted old apple crates and attached them to the wall to make colourful cubby shelves for easily storing boots and shoes by the door.


After. Image credit: Thea's Mania

3. CDs into bird-bath and garden ornament – Me and my DIY

This project by a DIY blogger is a particularly skilled execution of a well-known concept: turning old unwanted discs into a mosaic. In this case it's to decorate a bird-bath and eye-catching garden ornament.


Before and after. Image credit: Me and My DIY

4.  Disposable chopsticks into shelves and tiles  – ChopValue

This new start-up company noticed the enormous volume of disposable chopsticks thrown away - up to 100,000 a day just in their native Vancouver – and were inspired to put them to use. They transform the used bamboo chopsticks into beautiful products such as this collection of shelves and wall tiles.


After. Image credit: ChopValue

5. Old secondhand cabinet into stylish kitchen island – Sawdust to Stitches

Finally, this project is also by a creative blogger, who made an old unloved cabinet they bought for $5 at a junk sale into a kitchen island boasting beauty and utility. She posted a breakdown of how she made it, but you'll need some fairly advanced DIY skills to follow her lead.


Before and after. Image credit: Sawdust to Stitches

What’s your personal favourite upcycling project? Tweet us a picture to @KoruArchitects.

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