Why recycle when you can upcycle?


What is upcycling?

The Oxford Dictionary defines upcycling as the action of “reusing discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original”. It is in fact a relatively new term, albeit not a new concept. It was coined in 1994 by German engineer and upcycler, Reiner Pilz.

‘Recycling? I call it down-cycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.’

Recycling converts waste into new materials or products. Recycling conserves natural resources, protects our environment, reduces landfill and saves energy but it also requires energy and resources to collect, sort and process the waste in the first place. Plus, the quality of the final recycled product is often reduced.

On the other hand, upcycling is about refashioning an existing product and giving something old a new lease of life – whilst also increasing its value or quality. The concept is charming, romantic and wonderful.


What are the benefits of upcycling?

Every year in Britain, we throw away 1.8 million tones of textiles and generate enough rubbish in just two hours to fill Albert Hall. So, one of the biggest benefits is environmental impact. The only energy used in upcycling is your own – opposed to a huge recycling plant or factory.

Aside from reducing the amount of waste being sent to landfills every year, upcycling reduces the need to manufacture new goods and products. In turn, that means less air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gases.

But the benefits aren’t just environmental. Upcycling allows you to unleash your inner creativity, to think about new ways to use a new product. Plus, the product you own at the end of the process, is completely unique. Nobody else in the world owns it! There are few things that are more rewarding.

The shift back towards the use of craftsmen and women is also helping people to break free from poverty. We are gradually steering away from years and years of mass produced products. Abroad, there are stories of villagers who are able to make a living by creating and selling upcycled handmade products like jewellery, gifts and toys. Upcycling is kind to the environment and kind to people.


Upcycling in millinery

As a nation, we don’t wear hats. There would have been a time when everybody would have known their hat size like -just they know their shoe size. During World War high-quality materials were scarce and so many milliners recycled upholstery fabrics for their creations. The war itself put pressure on clothes manufacturing and clothes rationing was introduced from 1st June 1941.

The clothing rationing scheme worked by allocating different items of clothing with points. The points were assigned based on how much material and labour went into the manufacture of the clothing. For example, a dress was eleven coupons, a pair of shoes was five coupons and stockings were two coupons. Adults were given an allocation off 66 points and that had to last them the entire year – and that figure reduced as the war went on.

The ‘Make Do and Mend’ campaign was launched during the war to encourage men and women to make their existing clothes and supplies last longer. It was upcycling – even if they didn’t realise it back then.

In those days, women had to know how to make their own clothes and repair them too. There were ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes all across the country to teach women the skills they needed. Shortages of fabric meant that home sewers had to be imaginative with their use of materials; recycling old clothes and upholstery fabrics. Sometimes they even used blackout material and parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.


Here are some tips to help you “Make Do and Mend”

  • Add lace to the bottom of a dress to make it longer
  • Add elbow patches to an old shirt
  • Embellish an old blouse with beads
  • Create a cushion from an old chunky kint jumper
  • Craft a rag rug from old t-shirts