Skip to main content

Upcycle before you recycle – ‘Don’t throw that away!’

Ever thought of using Muller pots to save your eyesight? 

by Helen Cripps

That’s just what my mum and dad have done. In a flash of ‘upcycling’ inspiration they created ‘Muller hats’, using empty Muller Vitality plastic bottles (on never-ending special offer) to pop over the top of the wooden canes sticking out of tomato pots. So, there is no longer danger of gouging an eye out (or scratching a cheek) when you go to pick a tomato.  Even more handy if you have children (as my mum, ever the reception teacher, just pointed out when I rang her to request the below picture!)

In case you were wondering what the ‘Muller hats’ look like (taken straight from my parents’ garden!)

My parents didn’t know that this little outburst of ingenuity is actually what’s known as ‘upcycling.’

What is it upcycling?  It basically means you reuse something that you may have thrown away. A classic example would probably be tearing up old shirts or t-shirts and using them as cleaning rags. I think it’s instinctive and comes down to common sense a lot of the time.

What is the difference between upcycling and recycling? Upcycling is basically an extension of recycling. Even if you change the use of an item, or customise it, you do not have to physically break down the material. To upcycle is to give something a makeover (or, in the case of the shirt-to-rag, more of a reverse makeover!) whereas to recycle is a little more like reincarnation?  (Excuse the tenuous links.)

So is upcycling the new recycling? I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, there’s a time and a place for both. And both make a better alternative to ‘binning it.’

Being creative, this concept is appealing, but also being ‘maximalist’ this concept is dangerous for me. So I’ve looked at some pros and cons…

3 pros of upcycling…

1. It will save you money and is more energy efficient than recycling  Upcycling doesn’t take the energy that recycling does, as you are not having to break the material down, so it’s better in terms of the carbon footprint. I’m not against recycling, but it does use up resources like water and energy.

2. The satisfaction factor. It is a great feeling when you keep something with the intention of re-using or ‘reincarnating’ it and then, you actually do!  In my case it’s usually an item of clothing that I have kept for years,  which I find a newfound love for, or comes into fashion again years later. (Not really sure I can count this towards ‘energy saving’, as I am still rather partial to going out and buying new clothes!)

3. A chance to get creative! This is really what appeals to me – the challenge of finding new uses for old things.  Someone made a wine rack out of chopsticks! Fair enough, that example may be a little time consuming. I did a little upcyling myself the other day. I had some Millionaire Shortbread puddings that came in little plastic pots, I have kept them so I can make my own individual deserts in these pots. (Yet to actually do it though…)

3 cons of upcycling

1. It will only feed your hoarding habit.  Yes, it gives you justification (like you needed it) for just about everything you have ever kept.  With an injection of creativity most things can become ‘useful’ and you’re likely to end up with far more stuff than you need.

2. Is it just a recycling waiting room? In other words, is it inevitable that most of these things will, if sat around idle for long enough, end up being recycled or binned anyway? It may be quite a pessimistic way of looking at it, but anything ‘that seems like a good idea at the time’ often remains just that, a good idea.

3. You still buy new things! Prime example is me reviving a dress from 10 years ago, but still going out in my lunch break and buying another dress. That’s not because I need it, it’s because I want it, which is where I guess the problem lies when it comes to possessions, especially those that don’t really serve a vital function. Take candle holders for example, you could easily upcycle an empty wine bottle and make it into a rustic candle holder.  Though the rustic element of a candle in a bottle would be perfect for the garden (especially in BBQ season) if I’ve just redecorated my dining room, I want a candle that matches the colour scheme.

3 ways you could upcycle

1.The outdoors approach. There is lots you can upcycle. For one, you can compost food waste and use it in the garden.

Things like ice cream tubs can be used to keep seeds and other bits and bobs in and pots from garden centres can be reused again and again. If you have children (and time) you could make a scarecrow? (I guess that is less ‘functional upcycling’ and more ‘recreational’!)

2. The recreational approach. In other words, get creative, make things. Generally if these ‘things’ are functional they have more longevity, but if you have fun doing it and you are excercising your inventiveness then how can that be a bad thing?

Candle holders, containers and cards spring to mind as examples. I heard of a company who have started making bags out of Oreo wrappers and purses out of used seatbelts.

3. The functional approach. This is where you’re more likely to actually reduce your carbon footprint. A couple of ideas…

– When you get excessive packaging on goods, whether it’s plastic or paper, scrunch it up and use it instead of non-degradable foam pieces or bubble wrap.

-Instead of using wrapping paper, could you use an item of clothing you were going to throw out (or in my case, wear again in 3 years’ time) and wrap a present using that.

–  This one is a bit of a challenge, especially if, like me, you have a tendency to be over eager when tearing open cereal. The plastic bag that the cereal comes in, if kept intact, actually makes a very effective freezer bag.

–  Cardboard boxes. I guess this is the obvious one. When was the last time you actually went out and bought a cardboard box? I’d say boxes are something we’re all pretty good at re-using.  For some reason, writing this made me think – ‘Where do boxes end up?’  I found  a very intriguing website…

 A box life  

The site allows you to track a box (and potentially share the story of where it’s been.) Interesting concept, but I wasn’t convinced I’d want to know that my ailing cardboard box has made it to some idyllic island in the Maldives, when I’m in an office, looking out at rain whilst thinking ‘ah, summer? Yes I think we had one once…’

Have you got any upcycling stories or upcycling tips? Silly, sensible, effective or ineffective, I would love to hear them…