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upcycling

 
steward
Posts: 28942
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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this is the old redneck skill of raiding the junquepile My hubby scored a nice FREE pile of i-beam, angle iron and reciever hitch tube steel at the dump (about $400 worth of steel). He's going to make a motorcycle hitch carrier, and a disc with it all. He's freakin awesome
 
pollinator
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Location: Oakland, CA
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Nice!

I'd like to popularize the idea of up-cycling ceramics into tools.

Specifically, little bits of crushed spark-plug insulator, epoxied onto a steel or hardwood handle, would make a very sharp and durable paper/plastic cutter. A very small blade would make for a very safe tool, to open letters and do scrapbooking, remove shrinkwrap, open hoes in plastic mulch, etc. A slightly longer blade (maybe two whole millimeters long) would be enough to open those horrible blister packs, and cut up thicker plastic like milk jugs and soda bottles.

I own one of these, and really enjoy using it, but I think their decision to use transformation-toughened ceramics is kind of overkill for such a small blade.
 
                                    
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If I'm off on local trash collection day, which I'm usually not, I love to cruise the neighborhood and see what kinds of treasures I can find.  It's simply amazing what people throw out, much of it brand new in the box or barely used, and most of it needing repairs ranging from minor to major, but all still has value.  I've gotten some of the best "stuff" over the past few years doing this.

And, it all started by my cruising around looking for bagged leaves for the garden to use as mulch.  Then I noticed all of the other goodies and was hooked.
 
paul wheaton
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I lived in a community a couple of years ago where I set up some shelves in the laundry room labeled "free stuff!"  Folks could add to it or take what they wanted.  I thought it worked really well.  Others thought it was too junky looking and needed to be retired.

 
pollinator
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there are books, magazines and websites that are dedicated to repurposing "junk". I find some of it is useful and some of it is even beneficial and beautiful..and then there is some that is just ..well..junky.

i think it is all a matter of taste and ingenuity.

I have repurposed many things in both of our homes over many years..including repurposing old cabinetry, lumber, shutters, sliding glass doors and windows, etc..to some very sustantial savings and quite helpful storage use. I do have an interior design back ground so it is pretty obvious to me some items that can be reused..i also have seen people repupose a lot of less obvious things into some beautiful and useful items.

i have also seen some people completely clutter their property with totally ugly and uselss junk simply cause that was their choice..

in this throw away generation that we are in at this time. we do have a lot of items that obviuosly should be reused..like the glass that i repurposed..and i am thrilled to see peopole keep usable items out of the landfill whenever possible.
 
gardener
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I love the idea of upcycling, but in practice I see some pitfalls.

Probably the main one is when people go buy a bunch of extra craft-type supplies in order to repurpose something, thus creating even more waste than if they had just thrown the original thing away. For instance buying several cans of paint to make a cute rainbow colored herb planter out of pallets, stuff like that. It is cute but I wouldn't call it eco-friendly.

The other problem I see is that the upcycled stuff is often not something a person really needs or even really wants, it just becomes clutter after a while, especially if they upcycle stuff regularly. Or worse, give it as gifts that then end up being someone else's clutter or donated to the junk shop or landfilled. Honestly this is a problem with a lot of crafters (I am one, not trying to hate!) because we make more than we can use in our own homes. I saw a thing on YouTube the other day for a "personal recycling machine" for waste plastic and it could make children's toy spinning tops and ugly plastic lamp shades. How many lamp shades and toy tops can a person possibly use?

Third, a lot of times the stuff is pretty tacky and its origins are pretty obvious, so the appeal of much of it is kind of limited to those who have embraced the eclectic hippie junkyard aesthetic. Nothing wrong with that, but I would like to make it more of a thing with your image-conscious suburban type who generate much of the waste and consumption.

Not trying to be negative, I think there's a lot of potential here, just have some doubts about the way upcycling is trending.
 
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I think the point of upcycling is to only make what you need and use what you have.
At the same time, you can become a bit of a hoarder - well, that might be handy in the future, don't know what I'd use it for now.

Jennifer Richardson - you are right, upcycling needs to be done with thought. It can't just be a random act.

I think I am quite happy with the 'hippie junkyard aesthetic' (until I improve my manual skills that is, only so many courses you can do or afford).

The whole problem is consumerism. 'we' that is, the collective we, have been trained to think that buy buy buy is the way ahead for ourselves and the only way to progress. We all fall into that trap. Magazines that tell you how to make stuff on the cheap. Stuff that you never make, so you've just bought a magazine. Really hard mindset to break out of.

 
gardener
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As a matter of philosophy, what exactly does "upcycling" mean that isn't connoted by "re-using" or "recycling"?  What does the "up" mean in this context?

When I was a little kid my mom put a poster on the wall of the outhouse: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."  She didn't call it "recycling" when she tore apart my sister's worn-out-parka to make snowpants for me; she just called it living.  And when she glued buttons and a battery clockwork she found somewhere to an old frying pan to make a kitchen clock, she didn't call it upcycling, though she might have called it crafting.

When I hear "upcycling", I think that a thing has been not only reused or recycled, but also beautified -- turned from garbage or surplus into art, or at least into utility that's more attractive than the item was when found.  When I stack three truck tires and plant potatoes, I'm reusing them but I'm not (if I have this right) upcycling.  Whereas if my hipster neighbor paints those three tires to look like a cartoon character and plants flowers in them, that's upcycling.  Right?

Likewise if I burn some broken pallets for firewood, I've reused them but I haven't upcycled them.  Whereas if I cut them into intricate little pieces of hardwood and assemble mosaic coffee tables, I've upcycled them, right?

In fine, if upcycle means anything than "recycle" or "reuse" does not mean, it's a notion of elevation of the item.  But elevation along what metaphorical axis?  In my paragraph above, I'd say it's an axis of beauty; if you turn one workaday object into another ("I'm going to use this plastic garbage can to grow water chestnuts in") there's no "up" and thus no "upcycling".  

I propose this theory but I'm not sure it's correct.  And part of the reason is that mostly when I hear the word "upcycling" I hear it from "rich people" -- which is not to say, actually wealthy people, but people from that somewhat elevated social class who are mostly urban, well-educated, and concerned for intellectual reasons about thing like product cycles and waste streams.  People for whom "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" is a novel idea that was never part of their childhood.  This gives rise to an alternative, possibly-cynical, theory, that whether or not a particular activity is "upcycling" depends more on who is doing the upcycling than on the use or final form of the item.  Under this theory, it's upcycling when [pick your term of sardonic abuse: yuppies/hippies/hipsters/greenies/richies/Portlanders/suburbanites] do it, but if me in my overalls does it, it's the same old reuse/recycle/"make do" that it always was.  

I don't think that's quite right either, though I do sometimes see the word used that way.  

Third theory: "upcycling" doesn't actually mean anything different; it's just a marketing term to make boring old reuse/recycling more attractive and easier to "sell" to a skeptical public.

What do you think?   Do you ever use the word "upcycle" where the words "reuse" or "recycle" would not serve?  And if you do, what are the special connotations that make the word necessary or useful?

My concrete example today is this pair of accordion file pockets:



I picked them up at a garage sale from a "free" box, and I plan to use them to help organize my seeds.  They are made out of a terrible vinyl and I think they are ugly and I would never buy them at their $21.00 Walmart list price, but they are highly functional.  I don't plan to decorate them in any way.  Is this "upcycling"?  To me, no; it's just plain old scrounging.  


 
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Dan,

I think you laid it out pretty well.

In my opinion your first theory is the most common. Usually when I hear the term, it seems to be a way to turn regular junk into something not just useful, but valuable. That is, something that people would actually buy.

By the way, I see that you are in central OK. Approximately where are you? I live near Agra.

Don
 
Posts: 15
Location: Líbano, Tolima, Colombia - 1840msnm
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Recycling is breaking down to lower commodities.  An aluminum can will be recycled into aluminum, which can be an input again, but is inherently less processed than when it was a can.

Up cycling is turning something into a higher order good.  More processed.  More useful.  An aluminum can becomes.....A hat?  A pizza cutter?  A ring-mail vest?  

Your vinyl orgainizers are not recycled or upcycled, since you don't plan on changing anything, you are just reusing them, perhaps repurposing them since you are using them for something else.
 
steward
Posts: 4623
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Speaking of upcycling cans, I saw some pull tab upcycling in an art gallery last month that I thought were fantastic.  

Something like this.
 
pollinator
Posts: 951
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My opinion too: 'upcycling' is making something that's considered 'waste' or 'junk' into something beautiful, or useful. Maybe 'repurposing' comes close.
Recycling is re-using the material or the parts of the 'junk'.
 
Dan Boone
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Hey, Don, welcome to Permies.  I'm in Seminole County, which is about as specific as I like to get on the open internet.

Don Wilson wrote:
By the way, I see that you are in central OK. Approximately where are you? I live near Agra.

 
pollinator
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Brenda Groth wrote:there are books, magazines and websites that are dedicated to repurposing "junk". I find some of it is useful and some of it is even beneficial and beautiful..and then there is some that is just ..well..junky.


I've combed the web for ingenious re-uses of machinery and/or components (motors, frames, gear boxes, wheels/casters, steel or aluminum tubing, etc, etc).  I've posted (on various forums) some pics of useful devices and machines people have devised, and some of my own upcycle of materials & components.  So if you know of "books, magazines, and websites that are dedicated" to this sort of thing I'd like to know about them.  Names? URLs?

I've seen a lot of fun stuff of a decorative sort that people have made, but it's not my real personal interest.

Brenda Groth wrote:I have repurposed many things in both of our homes over many years..including repurposing old cabinetry, lumber, shutters, sliding glass doors and windows, etc..to some very sustantial savings and quite helpful storage use. I do have an interior design back ground so it is pretty obvious to me some items that can be reused..i also have seen people repupose a lot of less obvious things into some beautiful and useful items.


Yes, we've done that here - windows, doors, larger containers (barrels, etc)... old kitchen cabinets into workshop storage, etc.  I'm not the artistic one though... my partner is (she's a professional sculptor, and has the esthetic eye).

I'll just mention that Dale Hodgins started a great thread here at Permies, and people have shown some of their stuff and posted some pics to it:
https://permies.com/t/12412/projects
 
Posts: 248
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Usually, I find those DIY upcycled home decor sites useless, but have gotten ideas from them that I could use. For instance, this year I'm making plant tags from aluminum cans. I'll use a stylus to write the pertinent info on the tag, add paint in the depressions, seal them, and have cheap plant tags. These were meant for flower pot decorations, but I'm modifying them. They're good for ideas for storage and organization. I like useful items that look good.
 
Posts: 34
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I’ve always viewed the terms this way
Recycle: broken down to be remade onto some other product. Not something the individual does but something done but larger processes in special facilities.
Reuse: using the item for essentially its original purpose (like cleaning and reusing used ziplock bags)
Repurpose: using the item for a purpose different than its original but without significant alteration or change in value (using my old creamer bottles to store lentils or as a pencil holder)
Upcycle: frankly this could be combined with repurpose and the definition could be expanded to any use different than its original purpose regardless of amount of alteration or change in relative value. But if it’s to be its own term then it would be anything with significant alterations and or increase in value. By value I don’t mean necessarily monetary value. Altering my creamer bottles into fancy dolled up pencil holders I sell on Etsy may count but so could using those bottles to build a greenhouse or melting them into plastic bricks.
This concludes today’s edition of “my opinion no one asked for or needed”
 
Joel Bercardin
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Here's my thought about this topic: A great deal can be done through repurposing & upcycling.  These are not trivial activities.  Some people have done amazing stuff!

What's necessary is some focus — a desire to do more; and skills acquisition & improvement.  You learn to do new things and get better at them.

Among other relevant threads here on Permies, examples of a few directions upcycling & repurposing can take can be found in that thread I mentioned before https://permies.com/t/12412/projects and also on this newer one https://permies.com/t/102321/Small-homemade-gadgets#900762

I'll say that the projects I've shown pics of and described are not so wonderful or magnificent... they're just some sharings that hopefully encourage others to share what they've done and are doing.  Although the truly great examples of what people have done can be tricky to find on the internet, I can assure you there are some great examples out there.  In many cases people seem to have done them for home & family usage, not so much for sale.
 
gardener
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Joel Bercardin wrote:

In many cases people seem to have done them for home & family usage, not so much for sale.

To me true "upcycling" is using found things to make something that is either better than or more useful than the original. This means that unless you're upcycling a really common and frequently tossed item, the results will be unique and not of sufficient quantity to consider selling them. The exception might be the locals that buy up largely worn-out garden tools and weld/bend them into useful art. Unfortunately, many of the items I've seen made this way are only "art" - not that beautifying the world isn't an acceptable goal - and I'm left wondering if the old tools were *really* worn out, or could have been refurbished for their intended task. For example, most people toss a tool for a broken handle, rather than buying or making a new handle.
If people use "upcycling" as a way to do projects inexpensively that teach themselves skills that will be useful to themselves (hmmm... can I "upcycle" my friends by teaching them permaculture?) or their community, in today's "if it's broke, toss it and buy a new one world", those skills may both break the mind-set and help the planet.
I'll post one example below - I wanted a foot-stool for under my desk:
1. The metal legs/head/tail came from a garage sale cheap and had been attached to something acrylic that had been broken off.
2. The base is a scrap of plywood - too big to throw out but too small to use department.
3. The fabric cover is sewn from old corduroy pants fabric - some machine sewing, some hand sewing. (thread purchased for miscellaneous projects)
4. The stuffing was a stuffed toy we'd been given that no-one really liked - the stuffing hasn't held up well, so I'll need to find something else to reuse and it might be poodle fur.
5. The legs are attached with 1/4x20 bolts into 'T' nuts and were actually purchased.
turt-1.JPG
[Thumbnail for turt-1.JPG]
Beauty and function! I had never quilted in 3 dimensions, so I also learned a skill. We also had to do a little engineering. The legs give stability, but there's a block under the body that actually supports the stool.
 
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Fresnel lens from discarded projection screen TV = AMAZING POWER!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOj4Cauvhqc
 
Jay Angler
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@ Brent Jmiller - one of those is sooo.... on my wish list, but I've already got too many projects in the queue. I read about the a while ago and watched some videos and I could definitely find some uses for one.
 
Joel Bercardin
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Obtaining & physically extricating a fresnel lens from a defunct projection TV:  
 
pollinator
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I think something that puts a lot of people off (me included) is that if you go search the internet on this topic what you mainly find is kitsch junk.
Or things like this, unsafe in several ways! I do reuse things, plant labels are cut from any thin white plastic that comes my way, ice-cream lids yogurt pots etc. seed trays are old meat trays, large plant pots are actually buckets with holes in (more durable AND cheaper) wood is reused until it's compost or kindling. but all of what I do only delays the point the plastic (in general plastic) gets burnt.
 
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When I was living in Montreal, I jumped in with both feet. They have this wonderful (and simultaneously terrible) tradition of most of the year’s accommodation leases ending July first. Half the city is in a mad rush to move in and around that day - leaving an absolute treasure trove in the streets.

They’re also very liberal with garbage pickup around this time, so people leave out EVERYTHING. The last moving day i was there, I managed to score a bunch of plant pots, an antique lamp, an 18” cast iron pan, a big old framing hammer, and two very nice Ikea comfy chairs. I use the pan, lamp, and chairs regularly. This stuff was all just from my block!

The last year I was there, a neighbour asked if I wanted to garden in the backyard (a tiny bricked area) with him; we got to work collecting drawers from dressers and every container we could find. The city also offers free compost, so we grabbed a truckload and filled up the containers. We managed to scrounge all sorts of plants and starts  from dumpsters around the hood (Canadian Tire, Farmer’s Market) and planted quite a nice garden back there! The bricks made a nice microclimate and we had tons of watermelons and tomatoes, and herbs.

That was a great use of old/broken furniture, which I never would have thought of.

I sometimes miss the good old “moving day treasure hunts” as we called them, but I don’t miss he city life too much.
 
Jay Angler
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Skandi Rogers wrote:

Or things like this, unsafe in several ways!

On my evil twin days, I look at the dangerous things people do and try to believe it's just Darwinism at work!

On creative days, I often look at the kitsch stuff and wonder how it can actually be re-designed or done that would actually be useful. An example of that is I saw someone had used back jeans pockets to make a wall hanging to hold business letter envelopes. Using their technique, you had 4 pouches that would barely hold 3 letters each. It looked cute, but not worth the space or effort. I looked at the idea, figured out how to cut the pockets off the jeans with enough extra material around them to actually sew it in 3 dimensions so you could actually put objects up to the size of a 2 by 4 in them. I used the back leg part of one of the pair of jeans as a backing and sewed it all together. My east neighbor doesn't have a hall closet and was complaining that she kept losing her gardening gloves/hat/secateurs/etc. I gave it to her and warned her spouse that he had 3 days to get it hung where Kelly wanted it, or I'd show up with my drill and get it done. Kelly warned her spouse that it was for *her* stuff!! The first warning took, the second not so much. I was over there a while ago and I think at least half the pockets had Lloyd's stuff in them. The point is, I took a kitschy idea and made something truly useful that suited the location and was completely recycled except for the thread.

If they're around in the next couple of days, I'll get a picture of it to post.
 
Brent Jmiller
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Skandi Rogers wrote:I think something that puts a lot of people off (me included) is that if you go search the internet on this topic what you mainly find is kitsch junk.
Or things like this, unsafe in several ways! I do reuse things, plant labels are cut from any thin white plastic that comes my way, ice-cream lids yogurt pots etc. seed trays are old meat trays, large plant pots are actually buckets with holes in (more durable AND cheaper) wood is reused until it's compost or kindling. but all of what I do only delays the point the plastic (in general plastic) gets burnt.



NEVER BURN PLASTIC (unsafe in many ways)
Save it for the mushrooms
http://yupthatexists.com/pestalotiopsis-microspora-plastic-eating-mushroom/
 
Joel Bercardin
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Jay Angler wrote:On creative days, I often look at the kitsch stuff and wonder how it can actually be re-designed or done that would actually be useful.


Yeah, that's the spirit!
 
Skandi Rogers
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Brent Jmiller wrote:

NEVER BURN PLASTIC (unsafe in many ways)
Save it for the mushrooms
http://yupthatexists.com/pestalotiopsis-microspora-plastic-eating-mushroom/



I don't burn it, it goes to be burnt (with most other general rubbish including imported!) at the local combined heating and power plant.
 
Jay Angler
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Adding to my earlier post, it was a picture similar to this that was the original idea:

But what I built, and which is fully in use by my friend, is this:
jeans-pockets-for-Kelly.JPG
[Thumbnail for jeans-pockets-for-Kelly.JPG]
You can see that they aren't just flat, so they can actually hold thicker things quite well. Her husband would like one to, but not until more dead jeans are available!
 
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If you can access you-tube there is an excellent series called "gardening with Leon" (no, it is about saving water & recycling plastic junk) he does an excellent series about making self-wicking planting pots for food & flower gardening.  

The best part is that he uses plastic throw-aways (plastic cattle mineral lick tubs, 5 gal pails, plastic water /soda/detergent/milk/ etc bottles, aluminum soda cans, coffee cans, etc) to create these pots that save water dramatically.  I water mine every 10 days, and since the water goes into a reservoir area below the soil, there is no evaporation, it does not just run out the drainage holes, it does not drown the plants as he keeps an air space in the root area too, and the plants draw water as needed. I only use 1/10th of the water in these that I would use on a similarly sized "normal" pot.  He developed these as a greenhouse owner, because he developed a passion for teaching others to grow their own food economically.  

I love the 'green-ness' of it on many levels, not to mention the delicious vegetables.  My soil is better for making bricks (heavy red clay) so we use LOTS of pots while we amend the soil.  He does quite a few presentations at sustainable farming workshops.  I like that I had 98% of the needed materials readily at hand to make mine (I used totes that had sprung a leak, btw - they make wonderful large planters.  I think my cost per pot comes to less than 50 cents and that was mostly to make my own potting soil.  I expect it to go down as I make more.)  So if you are looking for a new planter, don't buy one, make one from recyclables!  Save water (and time spent watering), too.  
 
Oh, sure, you could do that. Or you could eat some pie. While reading this tiny ad:
Heat your home with the twigs that naturally fall of the trees in your yard
http://woodheat.net
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