Green living

What Is Upcycling and Why Is It Important?

A rotary phone upcycled to a lamp


Creating a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way of life takes effort from each and every one of us. There are many ways we can live “greener”, from reducing household waste to switching to a renewable source of energy. One of the most popular ways for environmentally conscious consumers to spend and waste less is through upcycling.

Upcycling is the act of taking an item no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. Upcycling creates something new from discarded materials by repairing, refurbishing, or repurposing them.

Upcycling is Sustainable

Upcycling began as a result of growing concern about the collective waste produced by our society and has become a creative outlet for people across the country to create unique, one-of-a-kind pieces while keeping materials out of landfills and reducing their amount of household waste.

Upcycling can involve any number of materials, products, and techniques, and is a great way to repurpose items that cannot be recycled or are damaged from their original purpose but still have usable parts. Sometimes it's as easy as a new coat of paint and some hardware to give an old table or desk a new lease on life.

Upcycling is environmentally friendly because it keeps us from adding new things to a world that is already inundated with material goods. The finished product is often more practical, beautiful, and valuable than the previous iteration, without buying something new. Adding value to a product is key for upcycling, by creating something that has both form and function.

The Difference Between Upcycling and Recycling

While some people may use upcycling and recycling interchangeably, they are not the same thing.

Recycling is the process of collecting materials that would otherwise be trash, processing them down to their base materials, and turning them into new products. Recycling takes consumer materials (mostly paper, plastic, glass, and metal) and remakes them into new products. Recycling is important, and can be a great way to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills. Glass is a great example of a closed-loop recycling system, where recycled glass is broken down and turned into new glass products. However, most other products cannot be recycled so seamlessly.

Upcycling is also different than downcycling, which is the process of breaking down materials into their base form to create new, lower-quality products. Downcycling decreases the quality of the products, such as turning paper bags into toilet paper. While downcycling is better than putting items directly into the trash, eventually materials can become so low quality that they are unusable and must go to a landfill.

Upcycling does not require materials to be broken down to their base components, nor does it degrade materials or cause them to lose value. To upcycle an object is to repurpose it without losing quality or value, and oftentimes upcycling creates a piece with more value than the original.

Additionally, upcycling helps to create a circular economy of goods where materials are reused, instead of a linear consumption of goods, where items are used and trashed. Some people also call upcycling repurposing, which would also be correct. Finding any new use for old items is upcycling.

Upcycling takes more than a bit of patience, creativity, and love, But the reward is a creatively fulfilling process and a unique piece handcrafted by you. Your home can be filled with upcycled pieces that make it one-of-a-kind and save you money from buying things long-term.

Materials that Can Be Upcycled

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to upcycling! Since all that is required to upcycle a product is to reuse it in ways that add value, most products and materials have the potential to be upcycled.

Upcycling has become so popular that it's easy to find ideas, inspiration, and even tutorials for nearly every material imaginable online. Check social media, YouTube, and Pinterest for craft ideas or walkthroughs.

Examples of upcycled materials include:


Plastic is one of the biggest contributors to landfill waste and can take upwards of 1,000 years to break down. Microplastics have been found everywhere in our world, even in the deepest part of the ocean. By upcycling your plastics, you're keeping this material out of landfills, nature, and the oceans while putting your creativity to work.

Plastic is as versatile as upcycled materials come; sometimes it is obvious in the new product, and other times it is completely unrecognizable. On a corporate level, some companies have started making shoes and accessories from plastic waste. Home upcyclers can use plastic to create anything from plant pots and jewelry to storage containers.

Clothing & Fabrics

Savvy moms have long upcycled clothing that kids have outgrown by turning it into blankets, pillows, and shams. From cutting up an old t-shirt and replacing the buttons on plants to making baby clothes into a blanket, fabrics offer a wide range of options for upcycling. Fast fashion is notoriously bad for the environment as well as developing countries, and repurposing old clothes is one way to break the cycle. All it takes is some scissors, a little imagination, and maybe an online tutorial!


Furniture is one of the most popular ways for people to create upcycled pieces for their homes. With a bit of vision, sweat, and elbow grease, you can turn a table or a lamp from your local secondhand store into a one-of-a-kind piece that would cost hundreds or thousands to buy at the store. Something as simple as sanding and painting a table can take an old, battered piece of furniture into the new centerpiece of your living room.


Upcycling wood products and furniture have long been a fan favorite for upcyclers. The durable material makes it easy to sand, paint, stain, or refinish to create a unique piece. Wood can also be salvaged from palates or scrap piles by those handy with power tools to create a totally new piece of décor or furniture. While upcycling wood does require a few more tools than other materials, the reward for the investment is a handcrafted piece you can't find anywhere else.


Aluminum containers have been upcycled since they were first introduced and can have a variety of uses beyond their life as a food can. Aluminum is easy to clean and flexible for a metal. Aluminum mining is damaging to the earth, so creating recycled and upcycled options is becoming increasingly popular throughout the US. Upcycle your aluminum to create pot planters, musical instruments, wind chimes, and more.


Glass is a durable and versatile material that is popular throughout the US. Glass is easily recyclable, but it can also have a host of other uses throughout your house, from vases and storage containers to food preservation, drinking glasses, and even pot planters. Upcycling glass rather than recycling it also saves the production energy it takes to break down and reform the materials.

Tips for Getting Started with Upcycling

  • Don't overcomplicate it! Sometimes a simple coat of paint is all an item needs for a new lease on life.

  • Be patient. Like all skills, upcycling can have a learning curve. Let yourself explore new techniques and learn new ways of crafting.

  • Start with small pieces. It's easy to dive in with both feet and find yourself working on a bigger project than imagined. Starting with smaller pieces and working your way up will help you build confidence in your ability to upcycle any materials.

  • Take pride in the pieces you create! It's not easy to look at an old piece with a vision of what it could be.

  • Remember why you started! Each piece you upcycle is a piece saved from a landfill.

  • Share your creations with your friends! You never know who you'll inspire to start upcycling next.

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