Upcycling has become a hot topic in home renovation circles as a quick and innovative way to make interesting pieces of art, furniture and other décor throughout your newly refurbished home. In fact the word “upcycling” was chosen as the 2019 Word of the Year by the Cambridge Dictionary, based on receiving the most likes of all Words of the Day. To help fuel your creative juices and increase your understanding of what’s possible, we have put together an inspirational overview, including several examples and links for next steps to get you started on an upcycling project.
In simplest terms, Upcycling is defined as the art of transforming discarded, unwanted materials and products into new designs and uses, which can improve upon the original item’s aesthetics, quality, cost and functionality. The heart of upcycling consists of creativity, efficiency, and often, sentimentality.
Upcycling can also be referred to as Sustainable Reuse. It is not to be confused with recycling, which is turning waste into a reusable material or product. In the upcycling process one need not “break down” the original item in order to transform it into a higher quality product.
The term Repurposing can be used, as well, when referring to items that are adapted for different uses than their original design. Transforming bathtubs into indoor or outdoor seating is a good example of repurposing.
Innovative Upcycling Examples in Developing Nations
We first encountered the concept of upcycling on a trip abroad where we noticed that many developing nations have been practicing this “art” as a means to decrease waste items in their landfills, such as plastic bags, old tire tubes, and plastic bottles. An important driver to this type of innovation has been the attractive “no cost” availability of key input materials.
There are multiple benefits of this kind of opportunistic supply chains, as refuse is proactively removed, jobs are created, and new, valuable products efficiently produced. Upcycling is further proof of the popular adage “necessity is the mother of invention”. Here are a couple of examples of entrepreneurial upcycling that have resulted in global brands.
Rubber Upcycling: Ecowings – India
Ecowings, is a company formed in India in 2010, by a design student, who travelled back and forth to school each day, and noticed mounds of old tires and inner tubes lining the heavily trafficked roads. He began collecting the rubber and began treating the material and trying out different designs. The company now sells leather alternative products, such as laptop bags, wallets, and handbags on their online store.
Rubber and Cloth Upcycling: soleRebels – Ethopia
In Ethiopia, soleRebels, a social enterprise that uses sourced and upcycled materials, founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, is considered to be Africa’s fastest growing footwear company. As a former accounting student, Alemu founded the enterprise to provide ecologically and economically sustainable jobs for her community. soleRebels products are 100% handmade and use locally sourced materials such as old car tires, discarded clothes and hand-loomed organic fabric.
Also interesting to note is that soleRebels also practices upcycling within their stores. In their Hamburg, Germany location, they use tires for padded seating and display shelving. Additionally they use repurposed shipping pallets throughout the store.
Upcycling in the U.S.
Fast forward to the US, where we are finally starting to put the importance of sustainability into practice.
During our research we discovered that upcycling falls into two categories:
- Materials that are Transformed for Other Uses
- Materials that Improve the Look and Utility of an Existing Product
Materials that are Transformed for Other Uses
Similar to the many examples that we have seen in developing countries, there are many companies in the US that are upcycling waste materials to produce exclusive décor items that are often beyond one’s imagination. The beauty of such items is that they are:
- Many of the resource items are curated from one-of-a-kind articles, so you can be assured that the end product will be an original masterpiece. We enjoy having unique, original items in our home, as it creates a sense of personalization to our décor.
- Items are often more practical with improved functionality or higher quality than the original source materials.
- Creativity is the most important aspect of an upcycling project. Creativity and inspiration know no boundaries when in the hands of skilled craftspersons with ample sources of eclectic materials. Let your imagination be your guide when considering new usage of a resourced item.
- The end product usually costs much less to produce based on the sourced materials, and is part of the satisfaction of a job well done.
New-Use Upcycling Examples for the Home
Outdoor Portable Bar from a Discarded Dresser
One of our favorite, truly inspired pieces was created by the husband and wife team at Bliss Ranch. They transformed a free dresser found at a garage sale into an outdoor portable bar. This is a wonderful use of imagination, skill and forward thinking, as the finished product has everything you would need for your outdoor party libations.
Wine Bar from a Rundown Dresser
Another favorite was found at the Navage Patch. They also transformed an old dresser, this time into a stylish indoor wine bar. Their use of lined LED lighting accentuates the elegance of the serving area, while improving the usability of the space.
Charging Station from a Breadbox
What an inventive way to charge devices in this “incognito” breadbox! This example from Artsy Chicks Rule is a good reminder how boxes are so versatile in covering unsightly fixtures and items.
Indoor Aquarium from an Old TV Box
We’ve seen variations on this upcycled project using both old TV’s and old computer monitors as fish aquariums. This example was shared on Aquahobby.com by a site member based in Australia. Extra bonus points for conversion of the old TV or monitor into a live plant terrarium.
Mason Jar Lighting Fixtures
We have a surplus of mason jars as a result of purchasing desserts from Whole Foods that are served in the container. Get creative! Mason jars have a number of creative re-uses from lighting fixtures to herb gardens to bird feeders. The Country Chic Cottage has several DIY mason jar lighting tutorials, in addition to links to purchase already completed mason lighting fixtures.
Like the Mason Jar, the Colander is another item that is open to various upcycled interpretations. Used as the perfect hanging basket or as an inventive eye-catching lighting fixture, colanders can allow you to expand your artistic creativity. The example in the photo below was aptly named Sputnik 2, made by 4fLighting, a lighting shop on Etsy.
We recently upgraded to a volcanic limestone bathtub. Had we known the true value of our old, cast iron tub, we could have created some amazing furniture for both indoor and outdoor use. Based on our research, the most creative use of old cast iron bathtubs are:
Our favorite is the outdoor “mega cooler” for parties, shown below. For more upcycled bathtub design photos, check out Homecrux.
Architectural cast offs are becoming chic and in high demand. We have seen both kitchen islands and bedroom furniture created from old drawing flat file storage cabinets. This photo is from a design overview of a mid-century home in Iceland posted on the Nordic Design blog. The author points out how the interior of the home has the right balance of vintage and modern elements, with the upcycled drawers of the kitchen island being a perfect example of these complementing styles.
For interesting room décor, that can tell a story or add some personality to your home, think about using:
- Old Hats
- Re-Cycled Tennis Rackets
- Old Pianos
- For a bit of nostalgia
- The piano in the photo was upcycled by Hungarian designer Máté Gergely Tóth
Materials that Improve the Look and Utility of an Existing Product
Upcycling can have a different meaning if you wish to improve upon an existing item to make it more functional or aesthetically pleasing. There are a number of DIY websites devoted to improving the look and function of everyday décor items and furniture for the home.
The beauty of this type of upcycling is that you may already own key components of the project. Here are a few examples.
Upcycling Old Outdated Kitchen Cabinets
Though adding a new set of cabinets is a popular choice for many kitchen renovations, there are many creative and cost-effective ways to improve the look and functionality of your existing cabinetry. These tactics can also serve as bridge solutions until you have sufficient budget to take on more elaborate upgrades. Here are just a few examples of applying upcycling to upgrade your existing kitchen cabinets:
- Add Glass Door Inserts
- Add New Hardware
- Remove Doors
- Add Lighting
Though technically not a pure upcycling example, this renovation example embodies the spirit of upcycling by upgrading plain, affordable cabinets (sourced from Ikea) with unique custom hardware. This was part of a large kitchen remodel completed and excellently chronicled by the couple who runs Walnut Studiolo, a leather crafts studio. In this case, the hardware is actually “leatherwear”. Also relevant to this particular renovation project, upcycling can significantly help reduce expenses.
Upcycling an Existing Item into Two Separate Pieces
Additionally, you can get more functionality from one item by turning it into two separate pieces. In this example, done by Two It Yourself, the functionality of a dresser drawer was improved, while also spawning a children’s storage box. The altered dresser created a larger, more accessible basket storage area, while the removed drawer was converted into a pillow storage box, for the foot of the bed.
Ottoman from a Coffee Table
From ThisWestCoastMommy, the design goals to upgrade an existing wooden coffee table into a cozy ottoman were to:
- Add Warmth
- Fabric makes the room look cozier
- Incorporate Custom Style
- This type of upholstery project is easier than it looks and cost-effective
- Provide Child Safety
- This was a practical way to eliminate dangerously sharp corners.