A Primer On Upcycling — Where To Start And What We Love

There’s recycling, and then there’s upcycling. And while both are great for the environment, upcycling comes with a special sort of satisfaction at the end of the day. As you gaze in pride at your finished product, you get to say “Yeah, I just turned my favorite threadbare pillowcases into garment bags with just some bias tape and liquid adhesive. You’re welcome, Mother Earth.”

The best part about upcycling is that there are no limits, no rules — you’re bound only by your own creativity and what you can find on Pinterest. You can earn a little extra spending money for yourself by doing something as simple as transforming an old ladder into an overpriced shelving unit. You can get crazy creative and turn that old filing cabinet from your pre-paperless days into a meat smoker. You can even get super involved in the upcycling/waste transformation movement and make some coffee flour. Mmm, mildly caffeinated pastries…

Upcycling Versus Recycling

If you’re wondering what the difference between upcycling and recycling is, let the folks at Hipcycle, an online retailer that partners with small businesses to sell their upcycled products, explain. Quite simply, “upcycling gives an item a better purpose.” Meaning that, instead of a product being broken down into its base material so the material can be remade into a new product, the product is refashioned. It’s still the same product that it started out as — but it serves an entirely different purpose.

Need more clarification? Just check out some of the cool infographics Hipcycle put together:

Upcycling Raw Materials

Upcycling isn’t just limited to the individual level, either. There are a lot of great companies whose sole purpose is to create products out of upcycled raw material — think bags and wallets made of old sail material, or yoga mats made of ground-up wetsuits. But to get that raw material, the companies need to be connected to the consumers who might otherwise throw away what they view as trash.

We spoke with Michael Stewart of Sustainable Surf, a California-based environmental nonprofit that actually works to bridge the gap between those consumers and manufacturers.

“Our larger mission,” Stewart said, “is to really push all of surfing culture toward a more sustainable lifestyle pathway — to transform surf culture into a positive force for protecting the ocean playground.” Which means that, instead of focusing broadly on issues like climate change and pollution, Sustainable Surf helps people see the impact of those issues specifically through the lens of surfing, so that they’re more motivated to take action toward change in their own lives.

But to make change, they need what Stewart calls “onramps.” That’s where the upcycling comes in. “We’re focused on creating programs that capture waste and help to upcycle it into new products,” he said. “And we’re partnered up with really cool, innovative companies that are doing that.” Not only does Sustainable Surf help source materials, they also work with the companies to create new products — many of them targeted at the surfing crowd— and bring them to market.

One example: Sustainable Surf’s core concept, the Waste to Waves program. “Only 2% of styrofoam is recycled in the U.S.,” Stewart said. “That’s just appalling.” After pairing up with the Surfrider Foundation, which found that styrofoam — a material used in making surfboards — is the second most commonly found plastic on the beach, Sustainable Surf decided to try and capture the styrofoam and divert it into the making of new surfboards before it ended up as beach detritus. Waste…to waves.

To do that, they needed participation from consumers. “We set up specific bins in surf shops up and down the California coast so that people could drop off the styrofoam packaging they get when they buy something like a TV or computer.” From the bins, the styrofoam is taken down to a surfboard manufacturer that produces styrofoam surfboard blanks. They send the styrofoam to one of their suppliers, Marco Foam, who breaks it down into a recycled-content polystyrene bead that the company buys back and makes their blanks from.

“The blanks can then be used by top surfboard brands as the inside core of a more eco-friendly, ocean-friendly surfboard,” Stewart said. “So it really brings it full-circle.”

While transforming styrofoam back into surfboards is closer to recycling than upcycling, Sustainable Surf has expanded its programs to include other materials and products within the past couple years. For example, the company has partnered up with ReCORK, North America’s largest wine cork recycling group, and is getting ready to launch their brand new “Wine to Waves” program (get it?), which turns used wine corks into biodegradable surf traction pads. Other incredible companies Sustainable Surf has teamed up with: Mafia Bags, which turns old kiteboard kites and windsurf sails into bags and wallets; Indosole Shoes, which uses tire sidewalls from Indonesia as the soles of shoes and sandals; and Suga Yoga Mats, which makes yoga mats from 100% recycled wetsuits. (According to Stewart, they’re literally the best yoga mats he’s ever used.)

The best thing, Stewart says, is that starting on the track of upcycling can lead to other lifestyle choices and changes — taking care of your body, eating better food, etc. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta recycle this.’ It’s like, “Oh, this is really cool. This could end up being something that I could buy back as a super rad product from the same place I’m dropping this stuff off. People actually see the full cycle of it.”

Upcycling from Home

A second method of upcycling is that of the do-it-yourself variety — taking something like wine corks (again with the wine corks!) and transforming them into tiny succulent planters. According to Judy Rom of the upcycling project inspiration website Upcycle That, the wine cork planters are one of the most popular projects on the website.

Rom told us that upcycling can go two ways: “Look around for things that aren’t being used and think of a new use for them, or, think of something you want to make, like a coffee table and find something to upcycle it out of, like a pallet.”

So instead of throwing away that used jelly jar, consider combing the internet to find a project for it, like Upcycle That’s glass jar soap dispenser. Or, on the flip side, the next time you need something like a cool serving bowl, look for a way to create one (out of those old records in the basement, perhaps) instead of just purchasing another mass-produced item from the store.

Sustainable Shopping

Sometimes, of course, you do need to buy something, whether for yourself or as a gift for someone else (Christmas is just four months away, people!). This is where smart shopping choices come in. Yes, you could go to the nearest box store and buy yourself a cheap thingamabob made out of plastic and mass-produced overseas. Or you could buy a unique, carefully-crafted upcycled product online, which is a win on multiple levels. Not only are you helping out Mother Earth by actively keeping waste out of the landfill, you’re also, generally, supporting small businesses and craftspeople.

We mentioned Hipcycle earlier — their mission is to address the global waste problem through upcycling. Their online shop is full of anything you could ever want — from hanging fruit bowls made out of a traffic lights to yoga bags and totes made out of decommissioned life vests.

A Call to Action

How involved you get in the upcycling movement is up to you — whether that means purchasing repurposed wine glass drinking glasses or actually dropping off your styrofoam at surf shops in California — but, as Michael Stewart says, it’s important to be involved. For one thing, companies need the raw materials for their upcycling work. “If Mafia Bags can’t get the old kiteboard sails and windsurf sails from people, then they don’t have anything to work with. Same thing with Suga. Same thing with the wine corks.”

But perhaps the most important point surrounding the idea of upcycling is the fact that the simple act of donating old materials and purchasing upcycled items can change the consumer’s point of view. “If you’ve got a pair of shoes made out of old tires, you’re gonna start looking at everything differently.” Stewart said. “Like, ‘Wait. Why am I throwing this away? What can this be turned into?’ That’s definitely part of how this sparks a bigger shift.”

Check out new, seemingly impossible feats of recycling on the third season of Human Resources premiering on Pivot Friday, August 26 at 7:30e/p.

This article was created as part of our partnership with RECESS.