Upcycling is a term that sprung to life in the 90’s, but hit the mainstream in the 2000’s. The practice of upcycling is, basically, taking something that’s no longer needed or wanted and, rather than disposing of it, transforming it into something new. Given the impact of waste on our environment – reports indicate that global waste is on pace to triple by 2100 – there’s clearly a need for us to re-consider how we use the resources and materials we have. Landfills and waste incinerators are simply not sustainable long-term and there are so many opportunities to re-purpose and re-use materials that we’ve, over time, learned to discard. Upcycling is a logical process, and what’s more, it can be fun, with products and projects being crafted from ‘junk’ products that really are astounding.
You’ve no doubt seen upcycling in your daily life. If you’ve ever used a jar for your spare change, you’re an upcycler yourself, and it’s commonplace these days to see high-end bars using mason jars instead of glasses or modern-styled homes with old wine bottles crafted into chandeliers. These small-scale upcycling projects don’t even stand out anymore they’re so common, and they’re perfect examples of the amazing things that can be done with what would otherwise be considered waste products. What you may not be aware of is the scale at which upcycling is taking place – here are a few examples of the innovative and intelligent ways in which upcycling is being used by companies to produce some impressive results:
In what would be one of the best known examples of upcycling, women’s clothing manufacturer Teeki uses only sustainable or recycled goods in all their designs, which are primarily yoga pants and bikinis. As per Teeki’s website: “all of our clothing is made from fabric that is spun from fibers made out of recycled plastic water bottles.” With an estimated 19.1 million tonnes of PET packaging set to be consumed globally within the next two years, Teeki’s mission to utilise this waste is definitely one to be supported, and the brand has grown a massive following due to the quality of their products and the mission behind their work. A perfect example of upcycling at its best.
There’s a range of high-end fashion retailers that are tapping into the upcycling trend – Kallio, for example, re-purposes men’s dress shirts into stylish clothes for kids; Zass Design utilises discarded materials to create high-quality jewellery. TRMTAB creates eye-catching, limited edition leather sleeves for tech devices, formulated entirely out of scrap material sourced from factories around the world. The idea came from co-founder Mansi Gupta, whose family operates Prachi Leathers in India. Each cycle, Prachi creates around 4,000 pounds of scrap – Gupta considered this, and together with fellow design student Cassandra Michel, they formed TRMTAB with the mission of utilising that ever-replenishing mass of waste. The team create exquisite looking leather cases, suitable for any professional.
Probably one of the coolest applications of upcycling – Pickmaster is a device that enables you to make your own guitar picks out of any soft plastic (up to 1mm thick). Old credit cards, bottles, even the packaging the device is delivered in can be used to create customised guitar picks. Given the huge amounts of plastic products discarded every day, Pickmaster is an ingenious idea.
Along similar lines as Pickmaster, Bohemian Guitars was founded on a simple premise – that the ability to create music should not be dependent on your financial status. Inspired by the resourcefulness of South African townships, Bohemian Guitars co-founder Shaun was inspired to build guitars out of scrap parts, including metal oil cans for guitar bodies and discarded rubber for the stands. The resulting instruments are unique works of art in themselves and form an extension of the players’ own creativity. As noted on Bohemian’s website, “beautiful music can be created from instruments made of any material.” Along the way, the company has built its own community of passionate musicians and artists, working together to help realise their vision for a more sustainable music culture. It’s an admirable pursuit, in more ways than one.
One a slightly different tack, each year, Denver hosts PalletFest, an upcycling festival that aims to raise awareness of the re-usability of wooden pallets. The majority of shipping pallets are only ever used once, contributing a significant amount of waste through discarded materials. PalletFest’s Kenny Fischer sought to address this, creating a festival which highlights the many ways these wooden devices can be used outside of what’s traditionally known. For example, there’s a pallet maze, a pallet amphitheatre hosting live musical performance. When looking through the vast array of art and craft options on display at PalletFest – all utilising what would have been discarded materials – it certainly delivers a strong message about the amount of useful products we throw out. It’s worth checking out images from previous events and getting an idea of what they have on offer.
Did you know that each year, thousands and thousands of flip-flops wash up on the coast of East Africa? It’s an unusual phenomenon, but rather than let the used footwear go to waste or poison local wildlife, the team at Ocean Sole turn these waste materials into works of art. With products ranging from key rings to large-scale animal sculptures and art installations, Ocean Sole’s products are both visually exciting and good for the environment. The products also serve to raise awareness of pollution and the damage discarded rubbish can do to our fragile ocean eco-systems.
As outlined on their website, “TerraCycle is on a mission to eliminate the idea of waste.” In 2001, university student Tom Szaky came up with the idea for TerraCycle after seeing how friends were creating fertilizer out of food scraps by using red worms. Szaky sought to better utilise food waste, shoveling rotting food from out the back of the Princeton cafeterias to fuel his worm/fertiliser conversion unit, eventually selling the resulting product through Home Dept and Walmart. By 2006, Terracycle had sold more than $1 million worth of their fertiliser products. They’ve since branched out into various other areas of sustainable and recyclable materials, with sales now exceeding more than $13 million per year – pretty amazing for a company founded on worm excrement! They also live the upcycling ethos – their head office in New Jersey is furnished almost entirely by upcycled former waste materials.
Amidst all growing excitement about the new world of 3D printing, Project RE_ has been formed to highlight the work of DIYers and hackers utilising automated manufacturing and home-based to create innovative and creative works with new technology. One element of Project RE_ is exploring the intersection of new technologies and upcycling – using everyday junk items, the team have created 3D printed elements that can transform what would be waste products into new devices. For example, add a custom sized 3D printed handle to a pair of tin cans and you’ve made yourself a dumbbell. Looking through the examples on the website, the possibilities are only limited by the designer’s imagination, adding another exciting element to the 3D printing wave.
Based in Sweden, Apokalyps Labotek is a design and innovation group that focuses on projects which seek to address issues with consumption, production and strategic development. Amongst their various activities, Apokalyps has developed spectacular looking rubber parquet flooring made up entirely of recycled tyres. As detailed on the website, each year, over 250 million car tyres become waste in the EU, contributing a huge amount to overall waste levels. Apokalyps has patented a process to re-use the tyres by cutting them into smaller pieces and extracting the metal mesh from the rubber. The flooring is not yet in wide scale production, but the aesthetics and practicality are quite inspiring, and again, highlight possibilities that we’ve long failed to consider.
This is just a sampling of the many applications of upcycling which are being undertaken worldwide. The innovation and intelligence of these solutions is truly awakening, it’s hard to look at waste the same way again once you see how many things can be re-used and how much of what we’ve always considered junk can actually be of use. This is not only beneficial for the environment as a whole, but many of these solutions are also good for your back pocket. Realising the value of the products you’re throwing away might just mean a few extra dollars in your account, if you start to change your thinking and look at junk from a different angle. And who knows, maybe your idea could be the next million dollar company – all of the ideas above stemmed from somewhere. Time to get thinking…