Upcycle vs. Reuse and Repurpose: How to Select a Good Upcycle
Every decade has its favorite buzzword; “upcycle” happens to be my pick, not only because it’s a clever word, but a fantastic, timely and sustainable concept. Recycling is widely known – gathering and reusing material to re-form or remake completely new items. Reusing simply means continuing to use serviceable items rather than discarding.
Repurposing utilizes discards for an extended, different purpose. Upcycling is a bit different, though. Simply, upcycling delivers a greater use or purpose from something plain or ordinary, but it also suggests something a bit more profound. For me, upcycling identifies untapped potential in an object and cultivates something more elevated and transformative. I like to think of it like a rebirth; an object serving one purpose its entire existence until that life or utility ends. Sounds a bit like the plot to Toy Story I know, but if objects have souls, we’re doing a great thing here by finding them new function and keeping them out of landfills.
Objective and Subjective Value
Value can be objective or subjective. Objects do things for us, like tools, generally – that is their intended value. A ladder has a purpose. A hammer has a purpose. But what of these things when they no longer can perform the task as
designed? In upcycling, the object be repurposed for a new objective function. Take the ladder – in pieces, it can be a bookcase, photo display or quilt rack. New function, yes…but now displays prized family photographs and personal objects – a subjective purpose – personal, aesthetic and unique. Quite the transformation, I would say!
A great upcycle is in the eye of the beholder. Developing that “eye” isn’t difficult, it just takes some practice and upcycle-goggles. Um… Upcycle-goggles? Yes, I just made that up…but upcycle-goggles are just as real as a lucky pen or a thinking cap.
Go ahead, put them on, they look silly but will fit you well. There. Now look through them…(come on, play along)!
From this point forward, understanding how to view the potential in everyday objects will become clearer to you.
Passing the Examination
Take a close look at the object. If it’s small enough, hold it in your hand. View it from all angles, upside down, right side up, on all sides, resting it on each of these sides if possible. Identify the heaviest, lightest, weakest and strongest parts. Study where it may be held with fasteners or molded together. Really study it…are you with me?
Additive and Subtractive
Now imagine it in sections. For instance, imagine a chair with just the base. Or just the back, or just the seat. Without legs. Or…cross-sectioned with the front two legs and half of the seat removed. Or sliced in half lengthwise. This is called a subtractive process; deconstructing or reducing an object by removing form.
What if the chair was in many pieces…imagine an exploded technical diagram…as if it were already apart in a box, and you were being asked to put it back together again. How would each of these pieces be useful on their own…or assembled differently than in the diagram? In the case of furniture, not every part may be used (especially those extra screws that seem to always show up), but most can be salvaged for other smaller projects.
Back to Toy Story again…remember Sid? The antagonist who would take toys apart and put them back together using the parts of other unrelated toys? Yes, I’m asking you to be Sid for a moment – bear with me. You’ve already created a subtractive model by reduction…but now you are creating a new form by adding more pieces – additive. Upcycling is an additive, subtractive transformative and creative process. Now that you know these simple concepts, let’s dial it down a bit.
Shape and Form
Consider the height, width and depth of the object, and the overall three-dimensional shape. Is it curvy, blocky, flat? Is the shape more organic and freeform or geometric? If you could define it, is it a cylinder, a sphere, a cube, a pyramid? For instance, could it serve as a vessel or container? Does it have an intricate or flowing form that may stand alone as a sculpture? Would it lend to being a base, backdrop or frame for another object?
Glass, metals, woods, clay, stone, leather, plastics…to name a few. Just about any material may be upcycled, and depending on the use, combined with other materials to yield a new object entirely. Example: an old bicycle wheel, on its side, fastened to a pedestal, with a glass top would make a great side table or accent piece. Perhaps you trim the bicycle rim with leather or rope? The same wheel, screwed vertically to a wooden base might make for an interesting mantel addition. Add a clock mechanism with some old wooden house numbers for a striking timepiece. Think how these materials may complement the existing style of your home.
Texture and Appearance
Most often, the word “texture” is associated with how something feels when touched. This is called “real” texture…but in artistic applications, texture may also be “implied”…looking like it should feel a certain way (but not feeling that way). Observe your item – does it have real or implied texture? Does it reflect or filter light – is it translucent, transparent, shiny, opaque? And the surface…is it something that may accept sanding, paint, glue or a sealant; or would welding or drilling be required to affix additive pieces?
Weight and Mass
It goes without saying that extremely heavy objects would be difficult to hang on the wall. Conversely, something light would make for a better wall covering or art installation than say, a vintage blacksmith’s anvil. Just saying. So…the weight and mass of a piece will probably dictate the decorative application, right? Don’t disregard, though, the obvious utility of a heavier object supporting a lighter one in combination. Iron is a great example of beauty in mass; upcycling forged iron items is extremely fashionable as rustic and industrial styles continue to gain in popularity…especially when cleverly juxtaposed with a contrasting material like leather or glass.
Okay…you can remove your upcycle-goggles now. Do you see things a little differently? Although every object may have a purpose now, when it has outlived that purpose, what will it become? The fundamental properties of an item – its composition, purpose, shape and form, material, appearance and texture – all contribute to the potential of an upcycle. It is your vision and creativity, though, that will engineer its transformation. So go ahead…rescue an upcycle today!
What would be a great candidate for an upcycle project? Share your thoughts below!
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally or believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”