up•cy•cle  ˈəpˌsīkəl/  verb

Use of the word, upcycle, started to gain traction in earnest in the mid 1990’s after research and publications emerged out of Europe addressing sustainability and zero emissions. One of the imperatives out of the movement was that we should create from what would have been discarded. 

This concept is not a new one. In fact, during The Great Depression, families resorted to thrift and found themselves repurposing and reusing many items. To say times were hard would be an understatement. The stock market had crashed in 1929 leading to record unemployment, bank failures, and drastically reduced consumer spending. 

People became extremely resourceful.  Dresses were made from used flour sacks. A dining table might have been fashioned from an old door. Rugs were woven with leftover parachute fabric.

Shredded Running Shoes


 To recycle would be to break down an object to its base materials and then remake the materials into something else, often of similar quality or value. Think of running shoe treads becoming artificial turf or plastic bottles that become cellular phones.  Some view recycling as having a negative impact on the environment because of the water, energy and possible chemicals needed to break down materials.

To downcycle would be to breakdown something that might otherwise end up useless and turn it into something that can be used, but would be of lesser quality or function. A good example of this would be plastic bags that are downcycled to become more plastic bags. The downcycled plastic bag is one that will not hold up as well and will degrade quickly. Discarded paper is downcycled into toilet paper. Downcycled items are often criticized for their inferior quality or value, but if you think about it, downcycling still helps reduce the energy and carbon footprint that would be produced by making the products from scratch with new raw materials

To upcycle would mean that an object may or may not be broken down – but it is simply repurposed or transformed into something of elevated creative or functional value. The spent grain from beer brewing can be upcycled into biogas which brewers can then use as a natural gas to fuel their brewing process. Refurbishing of electronics or furniture can be thought of as upcycling. Turning wooden pallets into a hope chest is upcycling.

Upcycled Windows

Just Do It

Today the craft of upcycling objet trouvé (found objects), memorabilia and discarded items has become a very successful cottage industry. Most weekends, local hardware stores are teeming with amateur and professional upcyclers trying to figure out how to make furniture out of pallets, make a lamp out of plumbing parts, or make a hanging birdfeeder out of grandma’s tea cup and saucer. The possibilities are limitless!

For inspiration, check out a few of our boards on Pinterest. Many of them are dedicated to sharing ideas for reusing, repurposing and upcycling.

Where to Shop

Of course, you should start with your own closets, cupboards, garage or basement. You’d be surprised how many “pearls” of inspiration you have hiding in your own home. If you find yourself short of material, just head to your local thrift store, flea market, yard sales or garage sale. Many stores offer senior discounts and have frequent price reduction sales.  

Tea Cup & Saucer Birdfeeder

Once you’ve found your materials, you may need to make a trip to your local hardware store to find the right connectors, tools and adhesives for the materials you plan to use.  

Here are a few of our favorite local thrift stores and flea markets: