We’re all aware of the practice of recycling. But how many of us know exactly what ‘upcycling’ entails? In this article, we’ll take a look at exactly what the two terms entail. We’ll see what aspirant recyclers and upcyclers need to do to get themselves started – and examine exactly why they should.
Why is recycling better than…not recycling?
You don’t have to be Spock to deduce that, provided one holds all other things equal, recycling something is better than throwing it away and replacing it entirely. This is because recycling eliminates all of the costs of making a brand new product – both in terms of the resources and labour consumed in the making of the replacement and the damage in doing so might inflict upon the environment. For this reason, recycling is a practice beloved of the green movement and governments across the world have put into place laws which incentivise (or even mandate) recycling – particularly when it comes to easily-recycled products, like glass.
But that’s just half the story. Disposing of the old product can be just as costly to the environment as manufacturing a new one. Mountains of washing machines, fridges and other appliances tower over landfills across the world. This problem looks set to become all the more vertiginous as the world’s population swells to eight billion and beyond. What’s more, all of this rubbish isn’t just a problem of local ugliness – it’s a global one. When clothes and food rot, they send methane into the atmosphere. This is one of the notorious ‘greenhouse gases’ which contribute to climate change. In this way, our recycling habits affect the natural world on the other side of the planet.
Clearly, the need to recycle is more imperative than ever, but as well as being an incredibly useful tool in keeping the planet clean, green and pleasant, some of recycling’s most zealous advocates practice recycling because it is an inherently good – or even moral – thing to do. Disposability, according to this school of thought, teaches us to undervalue our possessions. Holding on to old items and finding new uses for them, on the other hand, teaches us to appreciate them a little more.
Recycling comes in many forms and some are better than others. When we put a glass bottle into the bottle bank, or a pile of newspaper into the waste paper bin, we start a process whereby those materials are broken down into their constituent raw materials. Those raw materials can then be used again as other items. This is all well and good, but it is still not ideal, since the energy required to break down a glass bottle and reform it again is still going to waste. Ideally, we should instead look where possible to re-use old items – or better yet, to upcycle them.
Let’s take a look at perhaps the most obvious example of a re-usable product: the reusable shopping bag. The re-usable shopping bag exploded in popularity relatively recently and many shops now charge for bags which helps to encourage the trend. There were a number of forces behind this popularity, but the two main ones were that supermarkets began to incentivise their use and that customers became more conscious of the environment.
Is this change a good thing? Why? In order to determine this, we should consider the downsides of the old technology – and its upsides, too. Disposable plastic bags, when they were first introduced, were an extra convenience. Supermarket customers no longer had to bother thinking about bringing their own bag to the shop. Were the costs of doing this zero, this would be a step forward.
However, plastic bags have a number of environmental downsides. Creating them in the sort of quantities supermarket customers demand is no mean feat. Furthermore, they are not biodegradable – which means that, once discarded, they will remain in the same state for thousands of years.
It was realised that all of this waste could be eliminated if everyone were to simply change their habits. We’d only need to produce a few substantial shopping bags per household, rather than a few dozen flimsy ones per household per week. In this way, a substantial amount of waste could be avoided.
There is a cost to this. By re-using the same bag over and over again, we give ourselves one more thing to think about. But taken in perspective this minor cost is far preferable than the alternative. Once the habit is thoroughly ingrained, it can be easily maintained – we simply toss our shopping bags into our cars in much the same way that we do with the rest of those items we have to carry around.
Upcycling is a practice whereby an old item is turned into something even better than its original form. So, for example, if the door from your dishwasher should one day break, you might consider finding a new use for it as a lampshade or washing-up bowl.
Of course, this sort of thing requires a few ingredients which merely re-using the same item in the same way does not. One of these ingredients is creativity. Another is technical skill and artistry. For this reason, upcycling has turned into something of an artistic movement, with participants sharing their varied creations over the internet. Simply typing the words ‘upcycling’ into an image-sharing site like Pinterest will show you a huge range of different upcycling projects.
For those that have an eye for it, there exist myriad opportunities for upcycling all around us and these opportunities are not just available to practitioners of a single craft. If you’re good at sewing, there are many different ways in which worn-out textiles can be repurposed. An old pair of jeans, for example, might enter into a new life as a bag. If you’re good at welding, on the other hand, you might take a trip down to your local scrapyard and find inspiration piled high – a series of old pipes might take on a new lease of life as a shelving unit, or an old car seat might – with just a small amount of modification – continue to serve as a gaming chair.
Even if you’re not particularly creative, you can get on the upcycling act through one of the many businesses out there at hand to do your recycling for you. This often makes a good entry point for those who are unsure of what to do, or lack the time and energy to do upcycling of their own accord. Have a look around your locale for businesses who accept old items in order to turn them into new ones. Local craftspeople are always looking for interesting projects, so don’t be afraid to approach them with an idea – many a long-standing friendship and collaboration has begun in this way!
If you’re looking to get into upcycling, then there isn’t much to prevent you from doing so. These suggestions are but the tip of an enormous iceberg. Just spend a few moments searching the internet and you’ll find all of the inspiration you need – along with some practical advice.
There are a number of tangible advantages to upcycling the old and seemingly useless items which might be cluttering your house. Let’s review the most notable of them.
Upcycling can save you money
It seems sensible to begin with the most obvious advantage to upcycling. Every upcycled item in your home represents a time where you didn’t have to open your wallet. A home filled to the brim with upcycled items will therefore be owned by someone with a lot more income to spend elsewhere. No longer will you have to choose between a new lampshade and that new pair of speakers you’ve been ogling.
Upcycling can save the environment
Since upcycling eliminates waste, it can help to reduce the strain on the environment. Upcycled items therefore make excellent gifts for the environmentally-conscious. If the thought of all those landfills filling with old, unloved and useless pieces of metal and plastic fills you with despair, then upcycling might be the hobby for you.
Upcycling is fun!
Finally we come to perhaps the best reason to upcycle – it’s fun! There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had from watching an item turn from something you were ready to throw away into something which you take great pride in. It can even become something of an obsession – particularly for those who don’t like to part with old items unnecessarily.
Upcycling provides you with unique items
One of the less-often touted benefits of upcycling is the slew of completely unique items it provides you with. Every upcycled item is different and these subtle differences can help to lend character to a home. A well-crafted upcycled item will make a talking point and will help to ensure that your homestead leaves an impression upon all of your visitors.
Upcycling projects can be simple or remarkably ambitious and so they’re a great way to vent that untapped creativity no matter how plentiful or scarce your free time is. So, next time you’re conducting a spot of spring-cleaning, take a look through your rubbish and see if there’s anything that inspires you. You never know – you might start a hobby that will be with you for life!