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

The three R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle) seek to cut down on the amount of waste going to landfills, conserve natural resources, and reduce pollution.

Upcycling helps to achieve two of the 3 R’s: 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 provide enormous benefits to the environment, society and economy.

What is Upcycling?

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

It is estimated that 21% of Americans upcycle clothing, boxes and goods, which reduces the need for the production of new goods.

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. Whereas, 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 both reduce the amount of human waste produced and ending up in the landfill.

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 being 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 for single-use items to be in use 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.

There are three major benefits to upcycling, they include:

Environmental Benefits of Upcycling

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

Social Benefits of Upcycling

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 of Upcycling

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.

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

Many products that are used day-to-day can easily be upcycled with a little creativity to extend and upgrade the life of the product.

Materials that can be upcycled include:

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

Upcycling Ideas

There are tons of guides and YouTube videos online that you can generate inspiration from. Here are some ideas on how 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.

The disposal of old or unwanted clothes or textiles is bad 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 feel 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 not only bad for the environment but can be extremely 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 that involves the transformation of 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 careful
  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 to their fullest extent. Some say upcycling is the recycling of the future.

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