The rise of extreme upcycling

The latest facet of the sharing economy to hit our homes and high streets is that of ‘upcycling’, a phrase that was first coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things...

You are reading an article from the Understanding the sharing economy series, to read more about this you can visit the series homepage.

Upcycling is the method of converting waste materials and useless products into something more desirable and more valuable. Whereas down-cycling takes a product and reuses the manufactured goods resources for a less required or lower quality product. An example of this is recycled plastics. Recycled plastics are made up of several types of plastic, creating a lower quality plastic which can only be used for a particular type of product.

Upcycling, depending on the project, does not always require a skilled or professional person to make the change from rubbish to reward. All manner of everyday items can be upcycled from clothes to office appliances, from furniture to industrial items. The conversion from waste to want, can often take a little creativity. This innovation pays off as the value of the merchandise increases through product demand.

Is upcycling just a fancy word for recycling?

There is a key difference between upcycling and recycling. Turning waste into reusable products is classed as recycling; melting down old plastic bottles to remake new plastic bottles. Whereas the innovative upcycler would take the plastic bottles, paint each individual bottle a unique colour, bolt them together in a spiral shape to construct a creative and stylist lampshade.

Recycling has the focus on reusing old items or reusing the merchandise materials to create a new product. Upcycling will take an old item and make it more desirable by using a little imagination. Upcycled items often sell for a much higher value than the original cost of the reused item, whereas recycled items usually drop in value.

Upcycling isn’t new. During the 1930s and '40s many families suffered economically and had to be thrifty just to get by, as the goods they required were hard to come by. Upcycling was common place, converting old possessions into required resources. Today, in many poor countries upcycling is a still day to day occurrence with families creating clothes from food sacks, tables from old doors and cups from tin cans.

The new boost in upcycling in wealthy countries has little to do with money and more to do with creativity and the positive environmental impact upcycling has. More than ever we are aware of our impact on the earth. Landfills bury the rubbish we throw away as our unwanted items are replaced by new goods. These new products have to be produced using new resources taken from mother nature.

There has been a turn in the tide and consumers want to know where our goods and products come from. We are concerned that our recent buys are not supporting the environment and we are happy to pay more for upcycled and recycled goods. Often upcycled pieces are unique, which in a flush economy increases the value and desire for the product.

So when does upcycling become extreme?

When discussing upcycling it’s easy to think about an old bottle of beer being used as a candle holder. But upcycling can be much more extreme then this simple example.

In 2011 architect David Hertz purchased the remains of a Boeing 747 aircraft before turning it into an expensive and sought after Malibu home. Originally aeroplanes cost between £1-3 million, but by the time the plane is decommissioned the scrap value is only around £15,000-to-£20,000 mark, with most decommissioned planes ending in the scrap yard.  

In 2014 Channel 4’s Supersized Salvage TV show worked alongside Arizona’s AvAir and Sycamore Aviation to complete a major upcycling project to raise money for a children’s cancer charity. The challenge was to upcycle every single piece of the plane including the external shell and internal fitting; the seats, cockpit, overhead lockers and the wiring into new sellable items.

Channel 4 hired three designers who came up with a range of innovative ideas from the potential scrap metal. The designers created a vast ray of items from a garden office made from the plane’s fuselage to chairs and sofas fashioned from the curved edge of the plane’s wings. Overhead lockers were tuned into kids toy boxes and bird's nesting boxes were made out of air ducts.

The upcycling challenge sold all the pieces for a combined total of £44,000 with air duct bird boxes selling for £45-£80, a rocking chair selling for £250 and a staggering £650 for an upcycled desk lamp. The profit was not the only end game as the potential land filled waste that the plane could have created was now being used and displayed in people's home, having a considerable positive impact on the environment.

Upcycling is highly popular in the art world, with upcycled pieces selling for thousands of pounds. In 2013 sculptor Ichwan Noor created a perfect sphere from an old 1953 VW Beetle, which sold for an $88,000.

Extreme upcycling is changing people's lives

Cateur, Paraguay is a town built on a landfill, poverty in this area is high with many families’ upcycling goods on a daily basis just to survive. A local innovative musician took a new approach and started to make imaginative musical instruments for children; violins from oil drums, water pipe flutes and guitars made from packing crates, before teaching them how to play these hand crafted garbage instruments. From this they created the Landfill Harmonic, who are now receiving worldwide acclaim performing in locations across the globe; Amsterdam, Argentina, USA, Canada, Palestine, Norway and Japan and London.

How does upcycling affect the economy?

Upcycling requires little energy, minimal resources and has a fantastic environmental factor.  Waste is often buried in landfill sites producing methane and greenhouse gases. Once buried the materials become unusable and once consumers demand a new product factories and business have to supply, which often requires collecting the resources and materials.

In the home upcycling has many rewards with minimal disadvantages. But can it be achieved on an industrial level? Upcycling still requires a manufacturing process, at home it’s our own two hands, a tin of paint, a saw and screw driver. 

In the factory the operation has to diverse from that of the individual upcycler. Energy and fuel would be involved in an industrial upcycle plant, but compared to the cost on the environment for mining the required ores it has a better environmental factor.

Upcycling isn’t simply re-using items, upcycling makes the old items better, more useful and of better quality with minimal impact on the environment.

-This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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