What is Upcycling and Why is it Important? (Explained)

Upcycling helps to achieve two of the 3Rs: reduce and reuse. It is a creative and innovative way of giving old or unwanted products and materials a new life by adding value to the product.

Many common household items can be upcycled and greatly benefit the environment, society, and economy.

Upcycling is not a new concept and continues to gain popularity worldwide. Refurbishing or repurposing a material or product to create something of higher quality or value. This gives old or unwanted materials a second life, which reduces pollution and waste.

What is the difference between recycling and upcycling?

The difference between upcycling and recycling is the transformation process. Recycling takes common household materials (e.g., paper, metal, plastic, or glass) and turns them back into a raw form. The raw form is then used to convert it into a reusable material.

For example, a soda can be recycled back into its raw form of aluminum, and newspaper is recycled into its raw form of paper. Upcycling is turning an unwanted item into a material or product of higher quality without sending it to a recycling center.

Upcycling requires creativity and a DIY (do it yourself) attitude. The commonality between recycling and upcycling is that they reduce the amount of human waste produced and end up in landfills.

Why is Upcycling Important?

Upcycling emerged from a growing concern about waste but has become an increasingly fun, economical, and creative way to be more environmentally friendly. The more we buy, the more we produce, which leads to more consumption and more items being disposed of. Thus, upcycling is a refreshing solution.

Upcycling minimizes the volume of waste sent to landfills each year and reduces CO2 emissions by extending the lifespan of materials. It also reduces the need for producing new or raw materials, which decreases the amount of air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gases.

Upcycling helps create a circular economy, where materials can constantly be reused instead of turning into waste. This is important because it allows single-use items to be used indefinitely.

For a circular economy to be effective, manufacturers need to consider this feedback loop in the design and production of products to ensure they can be upcycled in the future.

Top Benefits of Upcycling:

Environmental Benefits

Upcycling reduces the number of materials and products ending up in the landfill. It also minimizes the use of natural resources and raw materials. Therefore, upcycling leaves a smaller footprint, reduce consumption, and minimizes the strain on valuable resources, such as fuel, forests, and water supplies.

Social Benefits

Upcycling encourages creativity and can become a fun hobby for some people. There is also satisfaction in knowing that you are doing something good for the environment by lowering your carbon footprint. There is also a fairly big online community surrounding upcycling on platforms like Pinterest and Facebook.

Economic Benefits

Upcycling saves money by turning products you already have into new items or products. For example, upcycling an old aluminum can into a utensil holder instead of buying a new one.

With that said, there are some material costs (e.g., paintbrushes and tools) required to upcycle, depending on what you are doing. Once you’ve invested in those initial materials, upcycling becomes more easier and efficient.

What can be Upcycled?

Everything and anything can be upcycled depending on how creative you are. This includes by-products, waste materials, and useless or unwanted products.

Hundreds of materials are discarded after a single use (e.g., milk cartons or yogurt containers). While some of these materials can be recycled, it is estimated that less than 30% of products get recycled.

Many daily products can easily be upcycled with a bit of creativity to extend and upgrade the product’s life.

Materials that can be upcycled include:

  • Plastic
  • Glass
  • Industrial waste
  • Clothing and textiles
  • Aluminum
  • Cardboard and paper
  • Wood
  • Rubber
  • Some many more materials and items can be upcycled.

Upcycling Ideas

There are tons of guides and YouTube videos online that you can generate inspiration from. Here are some ideas to upcycle the products you likely have in your home.

Clothing & Textiles

Clothing and textiles have a large environmental footprint as they require a vast amount of energy, water, and polluting chemicals for production. As fast fashion, cheap and trendy clothes, become increasingly popular, there will continue to be a lot of clothing and textile waste.

Disposing old or unwanted clothes or textiles is terrible for the environment, especially because the supply chain is rarely ethical. The upcycling of clothing and textiles is thus very beneficial for the environment.

Examples of Upcycling Include:

  • Create another piece of clothing (e.g., create shorts out of jeans)
  • Create handmade dishcloths, washcloths, or rags out of old t-shirts
  • Use clothing scraps and denim from old jeans to make a quilt
  • Use old clothing or textiles to make coffee cup cozies
  • Create a decorative pillow out of an old T-shirt


Furniture has a long lifespan but for various reasons that can be cut short (e.g., moving, purchasing new furniture). Some people want to buy new furniture because they feel it no longer fits their décor or they think it is outdated. However, instead of buying new furniture, it can easily be upcycled.

Garage sales are another great place to find a quality piece of furniture to make your own. All you need is sandpaper, paint, and hardware. This benefits the environment since furniture is bulky and hard to dispose of.

Examples of Upcycling Include:

  • Paint a dresser and replace the hardware
  • Buy new upholstery for a couch or chair
  • Turn a sideboard into a TV stand with paint, new handles, and holes for the cords
  • Turn an old wooden ladder into a bookshelf

Industrial Waste

Industrial waste is generated from manufacturing or industrial processes. It includes things like masonry and concrete, scrap metals, wood, and scrap lumber, among many other things. Industrial waste is terrible for the environment and can be highly costly to discard.

Examples of Upcycling Include:

  • Use a wooden pallet to plant flowers
  • Use wooden pallets to create a patio table
  • Use scrap metal to create a table

Common Household Items

Most common household items, such as cardboard, paper, aluminum, plastic, and glass, can be recycled. However, they can also be upcycled so that their lifespan is extended. Often these products can be enhanced and repurposed into an economical and creative solution.

Examples of Upcycling Include:

  • Use old toilet paper rolls to organize cables and cords
  • Turn old maps into coasters or picture frames or bookmark
  • Use an old ketchup bottle (or squirt bottle) as a pancake squirter
  • Use old yogurt, butter, or dip containers as Tupperware for storing food
  • Use an aluminum can as a pen holder

Top 10 Tips for Upcycling

Upcycling is a fun and exciting activity involving transforming materials and products into new ones.

There is no limit to upcycling, as no previous skills are required. While it might look and sound easy, Upcycling requires some patience and perseverance.

We’ve listed a few upcycling tips to help you get started.

  1. Start small, and don’t bite off more than you can chew
  2. Look for ideas and inspiration online
  3. Select materials carefully
  4. Have a plan
  5. Invest in the right tools (e.g. paint brushes, sandpaper)
  6. Use wax, varnish, or protective coating
  7. Mistakes happen and are a learning opportunity
  8. Keep your eye out for upcycle-able products (e.g. at the curb, garage sales, thrift stores)
  9. Be creative and use your imagination
  10. Have fun!

Final Thoughts on What is Upcycling

Upcycling is a fun and environmentally friendly way of giving an old object or material a new life. It reduces waste, saves energy, and eliminates the hassle of disposing of unwanted materials and products.

Reducing waste has a lot of environmental benefits, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing pollution. It also saves money and allows products to be used fully. Some say upcycling is the recycling of the future.

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