Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat… say hello to upcycling–the manufacturing revolution changing the way we turn wasted materials into amazing new stuff! While both recycling and upcycling reduces the amount of junk that goes to our landfills, upcycling turns that same waste into a product of a higher quality–while recycling slightly decreases the quality of certain materials. Simply put: recycling breaks products down into their raw materials to be made into totally new things, while upcycling creatively repurposes old materials while maintaining some of their original characteristics.
“Well, if I recycle, why do I need to upcycle?” Not only does the process of upcycling keep tons of waste from entering our landfills, lakes, and waterways (where they’ll sit for centuries!), it reduces the amount of CO2 entering our atmosphere by making use of old materials instead of extracting resources to create new ones. Believe it or not, for every ton of tossed textiles that get upcycled, 20 tons of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere! Also known as creative repurposing, upcycling is about more than just enjoying a fun DIY–it uses less water, energy, and raw materials to create something new than traditional production.
If you weren’t already itching to try your hand at upcycling, here’s one of the best parts: it will save you money! Instead of buying that expensive trendy new lamp, repurpose old mason jars for an industrial looking chandelier. Have old tee shirts? Cut and sew them into plastic-free produce bags for the grocery store! Or, do you want to use less energy to heat your house? Upcycle old tees into a “draft stopper”, and boom, you just saved money on your energy bill for a grand total of $0. You could also try your hand at sewing old jeans into dog ropes and save money next time you hit the pet store! There’s truly no shortage of wallet-friendly repurposing hacks out there.
At the end of the day, upcycling can be a heck of a lotta’ fun, while helping your wallet–and the planet. From scouring local thrift stores for fun pieces to repurpose, to bringing friends together for an upcycling party, it can be an awesome way to rally your community around sustainability.
How can I do it at home?
Conceptualized in 1994 by Reiner Pilz, the term upcycling is still relatively new. Upcycling refers to a system where “old products are given more value, not less.” From weekend DIY projects to large-scale manufacturing, all upcycling projects start with creativity. Pro tip: there are no mistakes when trying your hand at upcycling, only valuable lessons learned. After some practice, you’ll start seeing innovative products hiding within what others would consider junk everywhere you go! We break down our top upcycling tips below:
Step 1: be prepared! This means before you cut, hot-glue, or hammer anything, you need to begin with a plan of action. From the tools you’re gonna use, to your raw upcycled materials, starting with some knowledge under your belt will make the upcycling process go smoothly. It all starts with proper planning!
Step 2: get creative. There’s tons of innovative ideas out there, from DIY recipes, to zero waste challenges and tips. Use your imagination, and don’t let the intended use of an item discourage you from transforming it into something totally different and unique! Feeling stuck? There’s Pinterest boards, groups, and tons of resources (like this one!) for upcycling inspiration.
Step 3: reach out to your community! Before you toss away something in good condition that could be upcycled, first reach out to your local or online communities and see if anyone has a way to repurpose the item, or would like you to send it to them so they can use it! Many local stores and businesses will accept certain items–for example, most animal shelters accept towels with holes in them to upcycle into dog beds and toys.
Why we love upcycling!
Do-it-yourself not your thing? You’re in luck. There’s a ton of awesome brands taking upcycling into their own hands, and making some seriously awesome stuff while at it. Check out some of the awesome conscious companies we’re proud to have in the EarthHero family below!
In 2003, product engineer and bike rider Eli Reich had his messenger bag stolen, and decided to try his hand at making a new one out of a material he happened to have a ton of–used bicycle inner tubes. The result was a easy-travel bag that was durable, water-resistant, and ruggedly stylish. Beginning small in Seattle, Alchemy Goods quickly took off, and began to reach out to bike shops across the US to keep up with demand. To date, these uniquely upcycled bike bags have kept over 425,000 bike tubes out of our landfills!
Asian food is amazing. The single-use chopsticks that you get every time you eat it–not so much. In Vancouver, Canada alone, a whopping 100,000 bamboo chopsticks are tossed every single day throughout 2,000 restaurants. This inspired German native Felix Böck to launch Chop Value, a company that repurposes bamboo chopsticks into innovative home products and yoga blocks. In just two years, they’ve transformed over 2.5 million chopsticks into beautiful long lasting decor.
Charley Friedman was working on a sailboat off the coast of Maine in 2005 when his old leather wallet fell to pieces. Inspired by the sailcloth he found around the docks, he crafted himself a simple wallet that was water-resistant, durable, and eco-friendly. From there, Flowfold was born! From repurposed sailcloth wallets, to discarded climbing rope dog leashes, they’ve worked for the last decade to find materials and production methods that reduce waste, use less energy, and create the smallest impact on the planet.
What do wetsuits, bike tires, and old yoga mats all have in common? They’re the upcycled materials that make up Green Guru’s line of handmade vegan products. Founded just a few miles away from the EarthHero office in Boulder, Colorado, Green Guru has teamed up with outdoor companies and customers nationwide to take back everything from used bike tires to nylon factory scraps. To date, they’ve prevented over 500,000 pounds of waste from entering our landfills!
In the USA alone, 300 million tires are disposed of annually, staying in our landfills for centuries, where they can pose fire risks or become bug breeding grounds (yuck!). Indosole is on a mission to change the course with their responsibly made flip flops, created from upcycled tire soles with a touch of natural rubber. Sustainably crafted without any animal products or fuel powered machinery, these kicks are ready to hit the road.
Did you know that the fast fashion industry is the second biggest polluter on the planet, right behind the oil industry? Osom Brand combats textile pollution with their upcycled socks, made from clothing scraps that are upcycled without chemicals, dyes, or toxic fabric treatments. Their ultimate goal is to “close the loop” to a circular economy, keeping textiles out of the trash by repurposing them into new things whenever possible. Awesome work, Osom!
At the end of the day, there’s no shortage of creative ways you can bring upcycling into your life, from shopping with brands that upcycle materials, to trying your hand at it with what you already have available!