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May 17, 2012

Welcome to the world of Upycling

We’ve all heard of recycling, but now there’s a new phenomenon sweeping the world – upcycling. What is this strange word, you ask, and what am I supposed to do with it? Read on and all will be revealed…

Felt hearts made from upcycled woollen jumpers, via quinceandquire

Upcycling is, quite simply, the process of turning old materials or waste products into a new product that is of better value than the original. You’ve probably seen those bags made of newspapers and sweet wrappers (if you haven’t, where have you been!), but what is this new phenomenon, and how can you get involved? I spoke to Italian designer Gianluca Gimini about his upcycling project to turn toothbrushes into coloured pens – here’s what he said:

What is upcycling?

‘Upcycling is a way of helping a product directly into a second life. Many products are made of compound materials which will eventually need to be separated and sorted, then brought to a mouldable state so they can go back into the production process from its very beginning. Giving things a second chance before they have to go through all this is poetic and – if properly done – also environmentally friendly.’

What inspired you to start upcycling?

‘I started the rethINK project I was living in Shanghai… Consumerism is really big over there and at the time I used to walk through two rubbish dumps every day on my way to work and in one of them they used to sort all kinds of scrap material from iron to plastic bottles and used-up fireworks. So I started looking at all my rubbish from a different point of view and decided I would keep my used toothbrushes just because the handles were still brand new: initially I had no idea what I was going to do with them.’

Pens made from upcycled toothbrushes, via gianlucagimini

Is upcycling an alternative to recycling?

‘I don’t see upcycling as an alternative to recycling: you can’t upcycle for ever. But still, it can help postpone that (energy consuming) moment. In my opinion it should be done only if it’s really worth it both from an environmental point of view and from a “designer’s” point of view: if it can’t be turned into a useful/desirable object  or if it takes too much of an effort to do so, it should just be taken to the recycle-bin.’

What advice would you give someone who wanted to start upcycling?

‘The main risk is probably ending up with something that looks as if it were made with garbage… My advice is to look around you and see what is available. When you have spotted two or three candidates then you can start thinking about what can be made with them based on the characteristics of the material. For example I had some small colored toothbrush handles that were very suitable for writing from an ergonomic point of view: colored pens seemed logical and it didn’t require much work, actually just a drill and some refills for ball point pens. So my advice is to always try to exalt the properties of the object you are starting from, never to hide them!’

There’s pretty much no limit to what you can upcycle – old clothes, furniture, packaging, food waste, mobile phones… You could even turn used umbrellas into waterproof dog coats like this one here:

via Taryn Zychal

Inspired? Have you tried your hand at upcycling? Send us your pictures of upcycled items @Nokia_Connects!