The philosophy of upcycling

When you take a look around Pinterest you find lots of lists, quotes and regular DIY ideas, but one thing in particular seems to stand out lately: Upcycling. You can find detailed instructions on how to turn an old book into a new purse, how to make hooks out of old keys and how to design a hanging shelf using old belts. So, basically, how to destroy something old to create something new.

Upcycling is the process of transforming waste into new products. This way waste gets a new purpose, the environment suffers less, and you safe money. There are lots of advantages to upcycling, but it also costs a lot of time and effort. Still, the upcycling movement has shown significant growth in the last few years. The number of products on Etsy and Pinterest tagged with the word “upcycled” increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later. In April 2013, the hashtag “upcycled” had already been used 270.000 times.

What is it that makes upcycling so appealing to so many?

“I collect a lot of so-called waste and think of lots of things to do with it. For me, throwing stuff away means to fail in upcycling.”says, upcycling junkie Iris. She has upcycled countless objects in the last few years. Mainly to decorate her apartment. Her newest obsession and acquisition to her upcycling equipment is a sewing machine: after upcycling household products she now wants to move on to upcycling her clothes.

Iris has made lampshades out of old t-shirts, new candles out of the remains of burnt-down candles, and new containers out of old detergent bottles. “I’ll try any upcycling project once. If I consider it useful, I keep upcycling that way. For example, making candles out of old ones: you can do that over and over again.”

Upcycled candles

Upcycled candles.

T-shirt turned lampshade.

T-shirt turned lampshade.

Old detergent bottles with a new purpose.

Old detergent bottles with a new purpose.

With upcycling, old objects get a new purpose and thereby escape their fate of becoming useless waste. People who upcycle cause less waste and buy less stuff. Thats why the upcycling movement is considered the counterpart of our omnipresent culture of consumerism, which makes it an almost a political statement. Upcycling, it seems, is far more than a nice hobby, but rather a state of mind.

“I decided to try it all out and get into the spirit. So, after a while, it really became a state of mind.” Iris says. “I would say things like: ‘yeah honey, keep the bubblegum-wrapper please – i will upcycle it!'” Ultimately, the charm of upcycling may lie in the thrill one gets when holding in hands something unique and valuable, that others would have just thrown away. After some time, one starts to classify objects according to their “upcyclebility”. “With every new object I start thinking: What else could I make out of it? If somebody once had a good idea, chances are there are other great ideas one could have.”

Upcycling might be a new and rising trend on a societal level and still needs some getting used to for us normal consumers, but it has never been a strange concept to the arts. The concept of repurposing objects and creating something new entirely, is probably as old as art itself. One of the great upcycling moments in art history was the moment when Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp reoriented a common urinal (not a used one; he purchase it in a hardware store) to a position of 90 degrees from its normal position of use and called it “Fountain”.

Fountain by Duchamp.

Fountain by Duchamp. Source: Wikipedia

This great moment happened in 1917, when upcycling was far from being a movement. Since then, the concept of reusing objects in a different manner has become a regular part of the art scene. And with today’s upcycling movement it is on its way to even become a regular part of our daily lives.

Want to upcycle something pretty badly now and need some inspiration? Find it at, a wonderful blog dedicated to upcycling.

Photo credits: Verena Ehrnberger, Cover image by Unsplash.

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