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Green Living

The Art of Upcycling

Nov 16th, 2017

Just because you’ll no longer wear an old shirt doesn’t mean you should scrap it. That same shirt could help you carry tomorrow’s groceries from the store to your car. Finding innovative uses for goods you no longer need is fun. It’s a creative outlet that benefits the environment and can save you money. And, as of two decades ago, it’s a process we call upcycling.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the creative reuse of materials without degrading their composition. Consider an old barn that is about to be demolished. If you salvage a wooden door and assemble a coffee or dining table from it, you’re upcycling that wood. You’re crafting something useful from materials that might otherwise be discarded.

How is it different from recycling?

If recycling prepares used materials for a new purpose, upcycling gives used materials new purpose without recycling as a middleman. Recycling is a chemical process that makes used materials suitable for reuse, but with limitations. Typically, a good made from recycled paper or plastic has less value or utility than its predecessors. When something is upcycled, it’s spared the compositional changes that occur during the recycling process. This enables upward supply chain movement.


Although the term was coined in the 1990s, upcycling is not a new or particularly novel concept. The first upcycling was born of necessity, a force that drives the creative reuse of materials in many parts of the world today. When resource scarcity impacts you directly, it’s natural to draw out a product’s life. And when that product no longer fulfills its purpose, you find a new purpose for it.

What is new about the process is its prevalence in the developed world. Increasing environmental awareness has driven us to live more sustainable lives, making creative reuse fashionable. There’s now a consumer-driven market for upcycled products.

Commodified upcycling

The upcycling revolution has impacted several industries, including fashion, furniture, home goods, and decor. PLAYBACK Clothing, Re/Done, and Wolf & Lamb are making inroads in upcycled apparel. Hipcycle, another brand offering upcycled clothing and accessories, also offers a selection of creatively upcycled jewelry and home decor. Massachusetts-based Preserve collects recycled plastics and other materials, upcycling them into toothbrushes, kitchen tools and storage containers, and more. TerraCycle, a star of the movement, collects hard-to-recycle waste and converts it into a range of new products.

DIY upcycling

Buying upcycled goods is an eco-friendly way to update your wardrobe or apartment decor. But you can also repurpose materials for use in your apartment on your own. Old books, magazines, and plastic bottles can be upcycled into DIY bed frames, end tables, and lampshades. An endless array of DIY opportunities is available. And since the market for upcycled goods is so hot, you’ll save a lot of money. If you find you have a knack for repurposing junk, you might even be able to make money off your upcycling skills. Upcycled goods feature prominently on marketplaces Etsy and Kuttlefish.

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