We’ve all heard of recycling, but have you heard of upcycling? This is a type of recycling that involves converting unwanted materials or useless leftover products into something that is of better quality or has a better environmental value.
Upcycling vs downcycling
The first time the word ‘upcycling’ was used was by Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH, in an article by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994:
We talked about the impending EU Demolition Waste Streams directive. “Recycling,” he said, “I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling- where old products are given more value, not less.” He despairs of the German situation and recalls the supply of a large quantity of reclaimed woodblock from an English supplier for a contract in Nuremberg while just down the road a load of similar blocks was scrapped. In the road outside his premises, was the result of the Germans’ demolition waste recycling. It was a pinky looking aggregate with pieces of handmade brick, old tiles and discernible parts of useful old items mixed with crushed concrete. Is this the future for Europe? (Salvo in Germany – Reiner Pilz, 12 October 1994, SalvoNEWS)
This line sums up the upcycling concept beautifully: “old products are given more value, not less”. The goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling, which is the recycling process we are all familiar with. Downcycling involves converting materials and products into new materials of lesser quality.
For example, when you recycle (downcycle) paper, water is added to create a pulp – it then has any unwanted bits removed such as paper clips and staples, and it is washed to remove any adhesive or ink. Once cleaned, it is turned into paper again. Recycled paper comes in varying qualities: many are not as good as paper made from raw materials but others are comparable.
When fabric is downcycled, it is sorted into type and color and then shredded into “shoddy” fibres, after which it is blended with other selected fibres. The blended mixture is carded in order to clean and mix the fibres, and then it is spun ready for weaving or knitting – or sometimes, the fibres are compressed to make mattresses. Polyester based materials have a slightly different process – the garments are cut into small pieces which are then granulated and formed into small pellets. The pellets are broken down polymerised and turned into polyester chips. The chips are melted and spun into new filament fiber used to make new polyester fabrics. Downcycled fabric almost always tend to be of a lower quality to fabric made from raw materials.
Another good example is the downcycling of plastics other than those used to create bottles. In these cases, many different types of plastics are mixed, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid is used in the manufacturing of plastic lumber applications. However, unlike the engineered polymer ABS which hold properties of several plastics well, downcycled plastics suffer phase-separation that causes structural weakness in the final product. So the end product is inferior to the original.
Although the finished product is often of lesser quality, downcycling tends to be more energy efficient than making a garment from new raw materials. For example, it takes 70% less energy to make downcycled paper. However, the negative side is that the quality of the downcycled product is often inferior. Upcycling, by contrast, involves practically no use of energy at all since the process does not destroy the original item and this is one of the reasons why it is gaining popularity.
The upcycling process
Both upcycling and downcycling in effect reduce the use of new raw materials, meaning a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions. But upcycling more significantly reduces energy use, since upcycled products are not processed to the degree that recycled products are.
Upcycled products are also cheaper to make and in developing countries, where new raw materials are often expensive, upcycling is commonly practiced, largely due to impoverished conditions.
Upcycling in shabby chic couture
Although some shabby chic fans buy new products that have that vintage aged look, a huge number of shabby chic followers upcycle because it makes perfect sense to do so. Shabby chic furniture needs to have that worn look, and so the cheapest way to achieve this is to buy old furniture and give it a lick of paint, then age it to create the desired effect by sanding and roughing your painted furniture (here’s a guide on how to do this). This just wouldn’t work with cheap Ikea flat pack furniture, and the older the furniture is, the better it tends to look!
Another way shabby chic fans upcycle a lot is to reuse old fabrics – doilies, hankys, tea towels, old curtains, cushion covers, duvet sets – all these second hand fabrics are perfect for cutting up and making into curtains, patchwork items, cushion covers and the like. Again, these are far cheaper than buying new fabrics and it saves the work involved in fading the fabric to give it that aged shabby chic look.
For many shabby chic items, upcycling is absolutely necessary too – you can’t buy the stuff new, or if you did, you’d have a tough time aging it to get it looking how you want. Many of the 25 DIY projects I feature on this page require upcycling of everything from soup ladles and leftover skirting board to door handles and broken pottery.
If you love the shabby chic look, try and follow the upcycle trend rather than buying in new – not only is it often cheaper and easier than buying new products and aging them, but you’ll be helping the environment too.