Upcycling 101 - The top 3 questions I always get asked

Upcycling. It's commonly confused with recycling - but it is not the same thing. And it is, perhaps, often misunderstood. It can be a key contributor to making the world function in a more sustainable way. So, I thought I'd answer the top three questions that I get asked - almost on the daily - in order to break down what exactly it is and to highlight why it matters so much. So here it goes:

What is upcycling? 

By definition - 'Upcycling is the reuse of otherwise discarded objects or materials in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original'

In simple terms - upcycling continues the life of something - and adds value to it.

That could be something that's totally re-imagined and given a new function like these decommissioned fire hoses turned into luxury bags by the sustainable design brand Elvis & Kresse 


via Elvis & Kresse


Or tyres turned into flip flops by Indosole


via Indosole 

SO clever!!

Even Maria in the movie 'Sound of Music' had a light bulb moment when she thought to turn the curtains into clothing for all of the Von Trapp children! (Although, granted - these curtains still look like they have life left in them as curtains - but you get the gist!) 


And I can totally relate to her excitement there....!

Basically, upcycling gives a new lease of life to something that is at the end of it's original lifespan and may otherwise be deemed as 'waste'. And by doing so - keeps it from becoming waste and therefore prevents it from harming the environment.

The 'up' in the word upcycling refers to the value and quality added.

While recycling also extends the lifespan of something - it is quite different. And the main difference between the two is the process. Infact, recycling is commonly refered to as 'downcycling'


Because recycling essentially breaks down the material and converts it back into it's original fibers or components. This takes natural resources, energy and sometimes chemicals to do. These fibers can then be re-formed into something new - however, the broken down fibers tend to be of lessor quality due to the fact that have been processed. Often they are blended with new, virgin fibers which give it strength.

Resources and energy are used throughout the recycling processes - so it is not always the most environmental option. In the 'Three R's' that we are all familiar with - REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE - recycling comes last for that reason. Reducing and reusing should be the first port of call and upcycling comes under the REUSE category.

Upcycling is more energy efficient as materials are not broken down or degraded - instead, they are re-imagined and repurposed - adding value and quality while extending the lifespan of the material.

Which leads me on to the next question I commonly get...

Is upcycling not just prolonging the fact that the material or object will eventually end up in landfill?

Yes and no!

Yes it is diverting it from landfill, but no, it doesn't necessarily have to end up in landfill eventually. Things can be upcycled time and time again. But if it does end up there years down the road - let me explain why upcycling & prolonging its lifespan has still made a positive impact...   

Most things that have been made and manufactured are still in existence somewhere - or have left an imprint on the environment somehow. Not everything is recyclable and not everything biodegrades. We know that recycling isn't always the most environmentally friendly option and we know the process of something biodegrading can give off greenhouse gases which contributes to climate change and pollution. As does incineration. And just like our emotions - it's not the answer to bury them either. Sooner or later they are going to have an impact! 

We put a lot of energy, money, labour and resources into disposing, exporting and recycling 'end of life' materials - which doesn't favour the environment OR the economy. And even worse - many of these still have life left that they could give! THAT is a waste.


We also know now, that the way we have been operating is seriously impacting our planet and is unsustainable.  

So the thing is, if everything that's in existence has to go somewhere - doesn't it make more sense to reuse and upcycle it so that we don't create MORE things that ALSO have to go somewhere?

I can't help but think of the old age advice of 'make the most of what you have' Because by making the absolute maximum out of what we already have - we need less.

The most sustainable product is the one that we already have. 

By challenging our thinking and looking at this 'waste' as a resource for something new instead - then we see it for the value it is.

Many businesses and designers have created successful business opportunities and products from doing just that and I am going to be sharing with you many of them through our Circular Post blog. But there are still so many untapped opportunities yet to be discovered.

By keeping the material rather than exporting it - and by offering it for reuse and upcycling instead - then we open up economic opportunity to keep that value in the country - to increase that value - as well as to create jobs & businesses & new products - in a circular economy.

By using what we already have, we reduce new things being made, recycled and disposed of. It makes more sense and is kinder to environment.


So, while some items will still end up being recycled or landfilled long after being upcycled - the fact that they have been reused and upcycled to their maximum before that has a deeper knock on effect - which positively impacts not only the environment, but it also benefits our society and the economy too. 

Why are upcycled products more expensive - they are just made from waste?

I get this question quite often and it reflects how we as a society tend to view waste as worthless or useless - when in fact it can be a valuable resource. It may have a past and a story to tell - just like the best of us - but that doesn't neccessarily mean that beauty can't still be found or that the quality is compromised.

Products that have been upcycled require skill and imagination to transform them into something new. It is a very challenging process as rarely are two things the same. With our wetsuits for example - they come in all different thicknesses, sizes, colours and shades. They have various issues which have led them to be upcycled - so no two will be the same and each one poses a new challenge to overcome. There is a lot of time and labour that goes into assessing each one to make the maximum out of it. It also takes time and labour to source, prep and deconstruct something in order to get it ready - even before the remaking and redesigning stage.  

This is why upcycled products can be more expensive - because they can be more labour intensive. But their cost to the earth is far, far less which is much, much more important.


 circular post

This blog was written as part of our Circular Post - keeping you posted on environmental initiatives and designs that are helping to make the world go round.

We'll be covering stories on upcycling, recycling, sustainabilty and the circular economy.  

Got a story to share or something you'd like us to cover? Or enquire about our workshops and talks? Email us: hello@theupcyclemovement.com

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  • Clarice

    Great read
    Well explained
    All makes HUGE sense!!
    Very positive indeed.

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