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The Beginner’s Guide to Upcycling

Written by Julia Eden

A Beginner’s Guide to Upcycling: What You Need to Know

Upcycle: a term my computer still recognizes as a misspelling of recycle. But the terms upcycle and recycle are not the same. In fact, distinguishing them is an important step to reducing waste. Currently, we know the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse,  and Recycle. Although upcycling is similar to both reusing and recycling, it actually belongs between them.

A Beginner's Guide to Upcycling

A Beginner’s Guide to Upcycling

Reduce – To use less by consuming less. One accomplishes this by both buying less product and considering the potential waste of the products you do purchase. This includes the packaging they come in.

Reuse – Using an item as intended for longer than its “normal life-span”. Mending clothes and refilling plastic bottles are both examples of reusing.

Upcycle – This new step is all about taking items you have and turning them into other items through basic manipulation. The goal here is to create a new product that is worth more than the sum of its parts.

Recycle – Progressing past upcycling, recycling requires breaking products down to their basic components. Then those base materials become completely new products. Most materials, with the exception of metals, can only be downcycled. Each time they are recycled, the components degrade and, ultimately, have a finite life-cycle.

“Recycling is more expensive for communities than it needs to be, partly because traditional recycling tries to force materials into more lifetimes than they are designed for – a complicated and messy conversion, and one that itself expends energy and resources. Very few objects of modern consumption were designed with recycling in mind. If the process is truly to save money and materials, products must be designed from the very beginning to be recycled or even “upcycled” – a term we use to describe the return to industrial systems of materials with improved, rather than degraded, quality.”

— William McDonough and Michael Braungart,
credited with popularizing the term “upcycle” with their 2002 book,
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

A Beginner's Guide to Upcycling: A denim bag upcycled from an old pair of denim pants

A Beginner’s Guide to Upcycling: A denim bag upcycled from an old pair of denim pants

The Importance of Upcycling

Though on the surface upcycling seems like an unimportant step, the term itself has allowed people to view their junk in a new light. Upcycling keeps tons of material from being reprocessed (and the extra carbon those processes create), or worse, from going to the local dump. It also potentially keeps people from purchasing new products using virgin materials. There are many ways to upcycle. Maybe you turn that old pair of jeans into your ultra-modern rag rugs. You could even buy pieces made from upcycled materials. Either way, you are contributing to the cycle rather than bringing new materials into it.


If you’re looking to tackle larger projects, or just don’t have any unwanted items laying around, check out this link for the ultimate upcycling directory. It’s a huge list, organized by state, of all the places you can go to get unwanted materials, perfect for any project. These scrap centers take donations, much of it coming from industrial sources. Then, they sell them back to the public. Last time I visited my favorite center, I purchased scraps of leather, cardboard tubes, coffee sleeves made from bike tires, some random stationary, and a log (it’s a really good log). If you’re short on storage, this is the perfect exchange for you. Bring in the giant bag of corks you’re not sure what to do with, and leave with a ton of foam for that one project you’ve been looking forward to.

Meet Megan

Back when the word “crafts” tended to evoke images of housewives watching Martha Stewart, Megan saw the beginning of change. In 2005 she launched Generation T. By the following year, the first book was released. Now the proud author of two of the ultimate upcycling diy guides, Megan’s contribution to the growth of upcycling can not be overstated.

I first discovered Megan several years ago through Threadbanger, before my sewing skills were anything more than very basic. Though my skills have grown, I still use her books for inspiration and ideas.

“Boutiques and department stores, both high end and low, are selling clothes with the rough-edged, unfinished, I-made-it-myself look. And that’s where you come in, putting the “You” back into Do-It-Yourself.”

– Megan Nicolay

Generation T

Also known as “my upcycling bibles”, Generation T and Generation T Beyond Fashion are the quintessential upcycling resources. The skills needed to create the projects in the books are all clearly illustrated and very simple. A lot of the projects are sewing-free or have sewing-free versions. The variations provided are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. I don’t know if there’s a term for designers that is equivalent to writer’s block for writers (designer’s block?), but I do know that whenever I need a little more mo in my jo, I start with Generation T.

All of the projects are based around the idea of reusing t-shirts, mostly because they’re so plentiful and easy to manipulate. Quite a few of the ideas involve turning the t-shirts into other forms of clothing, like tops, skirts, and dresses. There are also plenty of ideas covering pet accessories, hats, bags, pillows, jewelry, baby toys, and kitchen accessories. There’s even a wedding dress!

So head down to your local Goodwill or Scrap USA — or raid your closet — and get started. There’s no excuse not to surround yourself with beautiful things when all you need to do is make them!

Just Buy It

ReWorks Upcycle Shop is a highly curated online market featuring selected artists’ work. Needless to say, everything they sell is beautifully finished, with many products available that won’t break the bank!

Kuttlefish is a global online market featuring upcycled products made by international sellers. This is one of my favorite places to windows shop, but make sure you do your research before you purchase. Kuttlefish has a wide-net acceptance policy for sellers. So, the products may only have a small percentage of upcycled components.

The Upcycle Crew highlights the need for repurposing in the creative community by providing a networking platform for all things upcycled. Started as an Etsy Team, and focused on featuring Etsy Sellers, Upcycle Crew is a great starting point for your immersion into the world of making things new again.

Etsy is arguably the largest online retailer of handmade goods, so it’s no surprise that a simple search for the terms “upcycled”, “repurposed”, or “recycled” produces a treasure trove of goodies.

Reunion Yarn. A special mention goes out to it for advocating the seemingly impossible: recycled natural fibers. By unraveling used sweaters, we can now reclaim natural textiles for reuse. The web store is coming soon for those that want to purchase yarn without the hassle. But, for those lucky enough to live in or near Tennessee, Emily hosts unraveling workshops so you can take the skill home and get to making!

About the author

Julia Eden

With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in fashion design and English Literature, and skilled in dance, she is dedicated to finding the information needed to live a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.

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