What Is Upcycling?

What is Upcycling?

Upcycling (also called creative reuse) is the practice of repurposing items or materials, in whole or in part, to create new ones of greater perceived value. This value may or may not be monetary; artistic value and environmental value are often considerations with upcycled items.

Upcycling vs. Recycling

The concepts of upcycling and recycling are similar, and people often confuse them or use them interchangeably. There’s an important difference, however.

Upcycled items or materials, when used in new creations, maintain at least some of their original form or function. For example, an old suitcase can be turned into an adorable dog bed, a display case, or even a chair. An old ladder mounted on a wall can serve as a bookshelf.

Recycling, on the other hand, involves completely breaking down an item and using the resulting material to make an entirely new product. This is what happens to the items you toss into your recycle bin. Glass bottles are broken down and made into new bottles or fiberglass; paper and cardboard are recycled into “post-consumer” paper, cardboard boxes, paperboard, cat litter, and a variety of other items; and the list goes on with other recyclables like aluminum and plastics.

Is Upcycling a New Thing?

Absolutely not! In the past, items were made for long-term use. Higher-quality materials meant that products lasted longer. Worn-out items were only discarded if they couldn’t be used in other ways. For example, old clothing was often cut apart and made into quilts.

In the modern era many societies have moved away from the practice of upcycling to extend the usefulness of products in favor of buying new items before the old ones wear out (technology “upgrades,” for one) and using disposable goods. Now, as we face growing threats to the environment, upcycling is becoming popular again as a way to reduce waste in landfills and lessen the negative effects of manufacturing processes.

The Aesthetic Value of Upcycling

Upcycled items like suitcase chairs and ladder bookshelves look cool and they serve a purpose -- a place to sit and a place to display books. But what about items that aren’t functional...what about those creations that are purely aesthetic?

I’ve seen some incredible works of art created entirely from scrap metal and others made from utensils, bottles, driftwood, broken tiles or glass, tires, shell casings, and on and on. These pieces are, of course, beautiful to look at, but I would argue that the concept of giving old, broken, or discarded things a new purpose is beautiful as well.

The Intersection of Art and Function

Can the process of upcycling result in products that are both beautiful and functional? You bet! Two of my favorite examples of upcycled functional art are paper bead jewelry and junk journals.

Paper Beads

Paper beads are exactly what they sound like -- beads made by rolling strips of paper and coating with glue or varnish to seal. Paper beads can be fashioned into necklaces, earrings, bracelets, lanyards, and other wearable art.

I’ve been making beads for years now, and I’ve accumulated thousands. I’ve used everything from junk mail to flyers, magazines to newspapers, comic books to scrapbook paper, and more. It’s an addicting craft, to say the least...and it’s extremely satisfying knowing that every bead I make equals one less scrap of paper in a landfill or recycling center.

Junk Journals

Junk journals are my new favorite passion. Simply put, junk journals are pretty much what the name implies...journals made from junk. This makes them the perfect upcycling project!

The possibilities for junk journal materials are practically endless and include things like book covers and pages, sheet music, maps, greeting cards, newspapers and magazines, product packaging (food boxes, produce stickers, labels, netting), envelopes and junk mail, receipts and ticket stubs, fabric scraps, ribbon, lace, seam binding, rick rack, old keys and broken jewelry, paper clips and binder clips, game pieces...and so much more.

A junk journal may be used in the same way as a regular journal -- for recording thoughts, appointments, etc. -- but also as a scrapbook for saving photos, mementos, etc. The most artistic part about creating a junk journal involves decorating, or embellishing, it. 

If you're excited by the thought of creating a personal and personalized place for your thoughts, dreams, and memories, check out my article, The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started with Junk Journaling.