Upcycling improves the efficiency of a resource, reduces waste, and transforms by-products, useless or unwanted products into materials that are better for the environment. It reduces the consumption of new, raw materials, which can reduce energy usage, air and water pollution and even green-house gas emissions. This regenerative effort means end products are cleaner, healthier, and often of better value.
Think of upcycling as refurbishing, refabricating, re-manufacturing, recycling, converting or transforming something that already exists into something different, whether it ends up as an artwork or a useable object.
The tradition of re-using found objects in mainstream art is said to have come of age in the 20th century, although it has been a means of folk art for much longer. The Amish quilt, for example came from upcycling salvaged fabric. Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” (1913) a front wheel and fork attached to a stool, is among early works of art. Pablo Picasso’s “Bull’s Head” (1942) was made from a discarded bicycle saddle and handlebars. American born artist Robert Rauschenberg collected trash and used objects and created an object he called Combines. One of his most famous works, called Monogram, includes a stuffed angora sheep he found on the side of a road in New Jersey, a used tennis ball and an old tire.
One of Rauschenberg’s Combines sold at auction for more than $11 million.
The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay was created in 2006. All instruments in the orchestra are made from materials taken from the landfill in Asuncion. You can hear more about that here: Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
In Industry, a key goal of upcycling is to reuse finite resources and reduce waste and consumption. Consumer electronics often uses refurbishment or re-manufacturing. Beer brewer’s spent grain is being used to create biodegradable six-pack rings. Old, unused granary buildings are being turned into modern, functioning living and working spaces. There are so many ways upcycling is being incorporated into products and design.
Restaurants and people can donate food waste to help feed farm animals. Engineers have figured out a way to break down food into a reusable bio-fuel by pressure cooking it and making methane out of the remains, which can be used to produce electricity and heat. Or simply by composting it to improve soil.
Young designers are using waste plastic bags or leather skin from old couches, or discarded rubber tires to create backpacks. Did you know the fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry after oil? While most textiles are recyclable, 85% end up in landfills in this country. In a circular economy, resources are used for as long as possible, getting the most value out of them while in use and then restored or repurposed.