Whether you call it repurposing, upcycling, revamping, or refurbishing, the beauty of making another person’s trash your treasure – or simply giving something a new lease of life – is not only deeply satisfying but also environmentally friendly and kind to your wallet. It’s a trend that’s on the rise (as interest rates and the cost of living do the same) and aligns with consumers’ increasing preference for one-off bespoke items over mass-produced, poor-quality items destined for landfill. Here, we break down exactly what upcycling means, look at its benefits, explore which items in your home might be ripe for a refresh, and even dip into how you could turn a knack for upcycling into a source of income.
The down-low on upcycling
Also known as creative reuse, upcycling is the act of taking something ‘old’ and modifying it to give it a new lease of life. UpcycleThat.com defines it as “the act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. In doing so, the finished product often becomes more practical, valuable, and beautiful than what it previously was.”
Upcycle vs recycle – what’s the difference?
While often confused or used interchangeably, the two are vastly different. Recycling typically involves breaking objects down so individual materials (like paper, glass, metal, and plastic) can be used to create new products, whereas upcycling reuses the original materials in creative ways to extend their life.
The upside of upcycling
When you upcycle, functionality, feel-good and frugality collide. Here’s a closer look at the upsides of upcycling:
- Environmental benefits – as sustainability becomes an increasing focus in our lives, upcycling stops our ingrained consumerism in its tracks. By extending the lifetime of an object, it won’t be heading straight to landfill, and ultimately, the carbon emissions and other pollutants from the manufacturing of new products are reduced.
- The feel-good factor – not only will you feel good about doing your bit for the environment, but the act of upcycling engages your creative brain, and you’ll feel a massive sense of achievement once your project is complete. You’ll also benefit from learning some new DIY skills and bask in the glory of having a unique, one-of-a-kind item.
- Cost savings – it’s hard to kick shopping addictions, particularly with the low-price points at fast fashion outlets and some homeware stores. But while it might only seem like a few dollars here and there, it all adds up. Start upcycling, and you’ll notice the savings.
Getting started with upcycling
While just about any item or object can be upcycled following a quick Google search or YouTube tutorial, we’ve got five ideas to help get your creative juices flowing and your upcycling journey started.
- Give furniture a freshen-up – whether it’s a chair, stool, or coffee table, there are plenty of easy wins to be had when it comes to giving your furniture a new lease of life – and you don’t need to be a DIY pro to accomplish them. Cosmetic updates like a fresh lick of paint, sand and varnish or simply replacing dated handles can quickly transform them from tired to on-trend and ready to be enjoyed for years to come. If you’re feeling a little more daring, you could try your hand at chalk paint, give switching out standard cupboard doors for uber-trendy cane webbing a go, tackle DIY reupholstering, or try working with patterns to inject colour and take upcycling originality to the next level.
- Glam up your garments – the average Australian buys almost 15kg of clothes each year (or around 56 new items), with the vast majority ending up in landfill. Upcycling your existing wardrobe (or hunting out vintage, pre-loved pieces) is a fantastic step towards combatting the fast fashion disaster. And you don’t need to be a master seamstress to breathe new life into your clothing. Simple, chic ideas include changing out the buttons on shirts or cardigans to give pieces a completely new look, getting messy and turning a plain white garment into a tie-dye masterpiece, giving old jeans the chop and transforming them into custom-length denim cut-offs, or turning a casual t-shirt into something more structured with the addition of no-sew shoulder pads.
- Beautiful books – with Kindles and Kobo’s taking over, piles of dusty books in forgotten corners have become common household features. But don’t send them to the recycling bin just yet. Books often hold sentimental value and can be hard to part with, so why not upcycle them into something that brings you joy? There are plenty of creative ways you can repurpose them – from turning the pages of children’s books into cute bunting, turning a stack of vintage books into a lamp for your reading nook, hollowing them out into a secret storage box a Victorian spy would be proud of, or even transform a book into a clock!
- Crafty kids – getting kids’ creative juices flowing is great for their brains, keeps them occupied and boosts their problem-solving abilities. And while single-use craft kits might be easy to come by, it’s infinitely better for the planet, your purse, and their little brains to repurpose ‘waste’ items into something new – it’s an excellent opportunity to teach them about the benefits of upcycling too! Products that commonly find their way into the recycling bins are often prime candidates for kids upcycling crafts. Tin cans can be turned into cute monster pencil holders or piggy banks; empty egg cartons make perfect paint palettes or adorable penguins; adults’ empty wine bottles can be repurposed into a bird feeder or wind chime, and, with Australians using on average, 88 rolls of toilet paper each year, put the cardboard tube to good use with one of these 150+ genius ideas.
- Priceless planters – while we might be propagating or participating in plant swaps, sometimes the costliest part of our love affair with houseplants is the pots themselves. Fortunately, plenty of upcycling ideas are out there to create unique, functional, and fun homes for our houseplants. Whether it’s a cute cork planter for succulents or other tiny plants, repurposing vintage tea cups to create a herb or cacti garden or transforming plastic soda bottles into colourful or quirky planters, the options are endless. So, start getting creative and bring some upcycled one-off planters into your home.
The upcycler’s hunting ground
The thrill of finding the perfect preloved item is often half the fun! While the first logical place to find things for upcycling is within your own home, if you’re a minimalist or looking for a particular piece, you might need to hunt elsewhere. Online platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and eBay are packed with items that need a little love, or try your local charity shop, second markets or neighbourhood garage sales.
Creating a new source of income
When the compliments over your upcycled items start flowing and your confidence and skills grow, you could even find yourself turning upcycling into a viable side hustle. Plenty of people with an eye for a bargain and a bit of foresight resell furniture after giving it a quick cosmetic makeover, and you’ll find thousands of upcycled items on selling platforms like Etsy. And if you’re finding your hobby blowing out into an income stream and need more room, call your local First National Real Estate office for help finding a space that will grow with your creativity.
Get creative, do your bit for the planet, and save money
Once you get started with upcycling, you’ll not only feel proud of your efforts but relish the money you’re saving and the positive impact you’re having on the environment. And if the creative juices aren’t flowing for you, donate your items to a charity like the Red Cross or Vinnies, and allow someone else to take on the challenge!