What is Upcycling?

upcycled can be beautiful

I talk a lot about upcycling here, at Crafting a Green World, and at Green Upgrader. It’s becoming a pretty popular concept in the craft world, and like with any concept that starts to take off, I think the meaning has gotten a bit watered down. So, what is upcycling, really?

What is Upcycling?

To understand upcycling, I think you first have to understand its opposite: downcycling. Often, when we recycle something (like sending plastic to the recycle center), the result is an inferior grade product. That means each time plastic is recycled, it produces lower and lower quality plastic. The result is that “recycling” plastic is really just a pit stop on the way to the landfill. I am not saying that we shouldn’t recycle. I’m just saying that it’s no panacea for waste.

Upcycling, on the other hand, is when you take something landfill bound and turn it into a higher quality product. The term was coined in the book Cradle to Cradle, and they were really talking about industry, but it can definitely apply to crafts, too. Say, for example, you take that flimsy plastic wrapping from a DVD and turn it into adorable origami star garland. That’s upcycling. Collecting styrofoam from the dump and turning it into a huge art piece is also upcycling. You took something useless and turned it into something valuable again.

What’s tricky is that upcycled art, which involves second-hand and found objects, can look a lot like art that’s not upcycled. So what’s the difference?

What is NOT Upcycling?

What is not upcycling, but I’m seeing folks mistakenly call upcycling, is finding an unusual way to use something. If you buy a new tube of tennis balls and turn them into an awesome art piece, that is not upcycling. Sure, it could be beautiful and extremely creative, but you’re not upcycling those tennis balls.

Incorporating unusual objects into your crafts is awesome. It’s fun. It’s surprising. But unless those items are second hand and you’re diverting them from the landfill you didn’t upcycle those items. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make art using unusual materials. You just shouldn’t call it upcycling, because when we misuse a term over and over, it starts to water down its meaning.

Image Credit: Creative Commons image by Teresa Stanton

3 comments on “What is Upcycling?
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