Monday, 23 May 2016

What is upcycling?

I talk a lot about upcycling in this blog but as it is new term for me, it is fair to think that it might be new term for my readers too. I discovered upcycling first when I was searching Pinterest for ideas about re-using household items, furnitures, clothes and so on. I looked for recycling, re-making and re-using and at some point came across with upcycling, typed that as a keyword and discovered whole new world.

Because upcycling was new discovery for me, I thought it was new term overall but apparently it isn't. At least not as new as I thought, as I thought it is from this decade, or at least this century. But apparently upcycling was first used already 1994. I was in primary school at that time and re-using fabric to make clothes wasn't exactly what I was interested in. At that time the clothes were passed from one family to other between friends and relatives, at least in our little village. In 1994 I wasn't particularly interested in sewing either.

So I was completely unaware of such a term existing but it doesn't mean that upcycling as an action wouldn't have existed. My grandma used to cut old clothes to be used for weaving rugs. Who would have known that by doing so she was in nowadays terms an upcycler? For her it was a way of life, something that came from her background. When she was younger, everything had to be used, re-used and upcycled to something else as there wasn't that much new materials to buy.

I started dressmaker studies couple years after graduating from high school, in beginning of 2000. We used to make test versions for our clothes out of plain cotton fabric. There was huge roll of it in the school and for the students the price was few euros/meter. Brand new fabric just for testing our self-made patterns? Not once did I think that I could have bought some bed sheets from second hand stores and used those. It would have been great for student budget. Of course it never occurred to me that I could have bought fabric for the clothes we made as well, at least to some of them, from second hand store too. It was so general way of doing things that I never questioned it. Looking back it seems downright stupid thing to do. But re-using old clothes was something my grandma would have done, not something that young student of dressmaking would do.

I had bought clothes, bags and shoes occasionally from second hand stores but it was only when I had my kids that I discovered that world fully. The kids' clothes are so easy to find in second hand stores, especially for babies. Also the clothes are so small that it is easy to take adult clothes and make new kids' clothes out of them. With the kids I re-found my inspiration for sewing too and all of this eventually lead to this blog.

So, what is it then? Wikipedia tells me this:

“Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless and/or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.”

So yes, when my grandma was cutting old worn out t-shirts and wove a rug out of them, it was definitely upcycling. The rugs were the only carpets my grandma's house had, more or less, so they had value for my grandparents. Definitely much more than the worn out shirts would ever have. But when my grandpa cut old t-shirts to use for cleaning and wiping in his workshop, he wasn't upcycling, he was re-using the old shirts.

To clarify the difference between upcycling and recycling one could use terms “downcycling” and “upcycling”. Recycling often is more like downcycling. In recycling for example paper is made paper mass again and used to make new paper but the quality of the new paper is often poorer quality than the original one. In upcycling you break the old item into pieces (at least in most cases) so that it isn't recognized anymore and the end product has more value than the original, unwanted item would have. In my opinion if something is unwanted and un-used, its value is almost nonexistent.

I found a good picture showing the difference from Hipcycle:

When upcycle or recycle then? I'm in two minds about upcycling things that can be recycled, like paper, cardboard, tin cans, plastic bottles and glass bottles. It is of course true that recycling requires energy and/or water to break down materials like stated in Hipcycle ( But if you take a plastic bottle that can be recycled (as for example all soda and water bottles are in Finland) and cut it or glue something onto it, it isn't possible to recycle it anymore and once it becomes unusable it becomes trash without any real way to recycle it anymore. Not so good thing in my opinion. It is nowadays possible to recycle fabric too, but upcycling fabric doesn't necessary exclude the chance to recycle it if need be. 

In fact we just got a new law stating that the textiles aren't allowed on landfills anymore. They have to be recycled the very least and there are of course the eco-centers where you can take your old clothes but also  many clothes shops are accepting any textiles you want to get rid of. At the moment most of this ends up for the use of industry (insulation for example) but there are plans to actually upcycle all the fabrics by breaking them down, make new yarn out of them and then new clothes that might be even better quality than the original fabric. That really is upcycling in larger scale! I'm happy to say that it is the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) who is working with this project. The whole article is here: Textile waste can be made into fabrics that are even better than the original

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