Upcycling is the art of turning trash into useful things or crafts that are, at least theoretically, a step up from what they used to be. It’s promoted as a thrifty and green activity because it keeps things out of landfills. The results certainly can be stunning, as this jaw-droppingly cool bowl made from plastic water bottles shows.
But what about when the results aren’t stunning, or even useful? When the upcycled version still looks like, well, trash?
Call me a snob, but I appreciate good design, aesthetics, and skill. If it’s a mug, it should lean into the curve of my hand like a friendly cat soliciting a pet. If it’s a chair, it should feel as good to sit in as it looks unoccupied. I’m attracted to things that combine form and function, and as a potter, I can make some of my own. What I can’t make, I’m happy to buy used or from other craftsmen.
All of which means that the average upcycled tin can pencil holder isn’t going to cut it for me. For one thing, I already have a pen holder. It’s ceramic and made by a skilled Japanese potter. I don’t need another one. For another, I don’t have the patience or time to learn how to create something really cool from waste materials, which leaves me with the so-called quick and easy (read: crappy) projects: jewelry made out of CDs, pop-cap bracelets, plastic bag headbands. Scrolling down this list of upcycling ideas reminded me of the crafts pages in the Highlights magazines of my childhood — the kind of things my parents would coo over and then secretly toss out when I’d forgotten about them.
I worry, too, that upcycling trash also creates less recyclable items. That’s nice that you were able to turn toilet paper towel tubes into napkin holders with beaming cherubs on them, but you used a lot of fairly toxic gold paint to do so. When you’re done with them, you won’t be able to recycle them anymore. (Why not just fold napkins into pretty shapes?) How long will you want to have your upcycled things around? Is upcycling just a way to delay the landfill?
Maybe. For some things, definitely. The garden variety of upcycling usually depends on our failure to reduce. Instead of upcycling our paper towel rolls, we could simply use cloth towels. Instead of making things out of soda pop tabs, we could not drink soda. Upcycling often reuses materials that we didn’t need to use in the first place. And while I admire the spirit behind it — and recognize that there are a whole lot of waste materials lying around already — I wonder about its effectiveness in lowering impact.
Time is also a resource. In fact, it’s a completely non-renewable one, so we should use it as wisely as we do our other resources. It’s one thing if you enjoy crafting, or if you can make something beautiful or necessary out of waste materials. But if you upcycle to be green, reducing the amount of waste materials that come into your life is probably going to make the bigger difference.
Do you upcycle? I’d love to hear your thoughts on upcycling and reducing impact.