Upcycling: What You Need To Know


In recent years there has been a growing interest in sustainability, perhaps in answer to the climate crisis and the depletion of natural resources. More and more people have been trying to lessen their impact on the planet. As such, we have shifted away from buying new to finding second-hand items. Alongside this, we are also experiencing an increased interest in upcycling. With the right amount of imagination, you can upcycle pretty much anything. Keep reading to find out more.

Woman sewing with a machine while sitting on a chair

Photo by cottonbro

So, What is Upcycling?

To put it as simply as possible, upcycling is the act of taking something old and finding a new use for it or using it to create something new. In order to get a better understanding of upcycling, you need to also have a good understanding of downcycling – or recycling, as it is more commonly known.

Recycling is usually what comes to mind when people think of sustainability. Materials like paper, plastic or glass are separated, taken to a processing centre, and the materials are completely broken down so that they can be used again. However, the products produced from recycled products tend to be of less value than the original product because they are damaged in the process, and the quality is lowered.

On the other hand, upcycling transforms a product and produces an end result of more value than the original, either financially or in its practical application. The concept isn’t new, of course. People have been finding new uses for old things for years because it makes more sense financially to do so. Upcycling helps to maintain a circular economy and is far more sustainable than continually replacing products. It adds value and provides things a second existence.

Upcycled flower vases

Photo by karelituval

The Sustainability of Upcycling

Upcycling is far better for the planet than buying new. It uses materials that already exist and reduces waste by giving new life to things that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It also reduces the need to produce or use unsustainable products like plastic. Upcycling can be done on a wide scale by businesses that use things like plastic bottles to create clothing or shoes. You can do it on an individual level, like transforming an old piece of furniture into something new.

Upcycling dramatically reduces the need to mine, extract or produce raw and synthetic materials because you already have what you need. This is obviously beneficial on an industrial scale for businesses that consume a lot of resources in the production of their products. For example, using pre-used wood to create furniture removes the need to cut down trees.

It also saves products from ending up in a landfill. A lot of people think that recycling saves these products from a landfill anyway, but this is not always the case. Most of the time, when a product is broken down to be recycled, there is still some waste created that goes to the landfill. Some materials like plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times before it has to go to the landfill anyway. Unless these products are biodegradable, the likelihood is that they will end up languishing in a landfill at some point.

Finally, because upcycling minimises the consumption of resources, it also reduces the need for manufacturing processes. Taking a raw material through the manufacturing process produces a lot of emissions, especially for bigger businesses. While better than nothing, recycling also still produces carbon emissions. Upcycling streamlines the manufacturing process, which in turn minimises the amount of carbon emissions created.

Tips for Upcycling

As mentioned above, upcycling can be done on an industrial scale, but it can also be done individually too. If you have an interest in upcycling, but are not sure where to start, it can be challenging. Luckily, upcycling is pretty easy once you know what you are doing.

Choose a project

First things first, you need to have a project in mind, whether that is taking an old shirt and making it into a new piece of clothing or updating an old, ugly piece of furniture.

Start prepping

After you have a project in mind, you need to start prepping. What exactly are you doing? Planning the project helps to ensure that you are going to have everything you need to finish the job. For example, for a furniture upcycle, you should start by cleaning the piece and sanding it down if you plan to paint. You will also need to think about how long the project is likely to take. You should also strip down all hardware before you go any further to avoid getting paint or wax on them.

Arts and crafts projects, drawing, upcycling

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Use your imagination

Imagination is also paramount to an upcycling project. A little creativity can go a long way. Almost anything can be upcycled into something else. You can look for inspiration online. You might find a really cool piece of furniture that you can emulate by upcycling something you already have. There are so many ideas online and tutorials that you can follow too; it makes the upcycling process incredibly easier.

Enhance the original design

Try to keep in mind the origin of the piece. For example, some pieces of vintage furniture are never going to look great if you try to overhaul and modernise them; instead, you should go with the design and try to enhance it. Some materials work better for specific clothing pieces than others. When it comes to upcycling, you need to think about these things. Otherwise, you will simply be wasting your time upcycling something that you won’t use.

Use quality materials

While upcycling is often the cheaper option over purchasing new, it is still important to consider the quality of the materials that you are using. Good paint brushes will make sure the paint goes on more smoothly, and the finish won’t be ruined by stray bristles. The same can be said for furniture wax. Cheap sandpaper will make the sanding process longer, and you will use more of it too. Cupboard or wardrobe handles from a reputable provider like Corston will last longer than cheaper versions and sit better on the furniture too.

Get the right tools for the job

You also need to make sure that you have the right tools for the job. It can be tempting, as a beginner, to pick the cheapest products or to underestimate the importance of products like primer, sealant or varnish. Think about where your piece is going to end up. If you are upcycling something to live outside, then you will need to get weatherproof paint. Make sure your project isn’t ruined by prolonged exposure to the elements.

Have fun!

Upcycling can be stressful, but it should also be fun. There are so many design options out there! You get to tailor-make something for yourself that fits with your style and design aesthetic perfectly. Don’t be put off by a lack of skill or knowledge on your part. Everyone has to start somewhere, and you can learn all of the techniques that you will need to complete your project.

Girl painting on a white wall with red paint

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

To Sum Up

Upcycling is a more sustainable approach to living. It is better than recycling, lthough recycling does have its merits too. Pretty much anything you have can be upcycled into something else (food can be upcycled too) if you have the creativity and the know-how. There is a tonne of resources online to help you. Find all the inspiration you need as well as practical advice to help you complete your project.

Upcycling helps to lower carbon emissions, reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and protect the planet’s natural resources too.

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