What Is Upcycling?

Updated: Jul. 11, 2023

Got a tired old chair or a broken chipped flowerpot? Instead of tossing it, upcycle it into something new — and join the circular economy buzz.

A few years ago, Mindi Carwin spotted a wooden coffee table set out for the garbage truck to haul away. It still looked usable, so she scooped it up. Then, sh added wooden slats to replace a missing glass top and gave it a new home in the family kitchen. When one of her boys jumped on it and broke it, she took some of the wood and made furniture for the back patio.

That’s upcycling at its essence.

“I love saving good materials from the landfill and creating things that are useful and beautiful instead,” says Carwin, now a professional upcycler and blogger.

“Upcycling is something I’m very passionate about. If I can create something while recycling materials, then I don’t have to turn to new resources … [It’s] a small way to help contribute to the sustainability and beauty of a circular economy. It seriously makes me happy inside!”

Whether you go all-out on a home makeover or just create a lampshade out of seemingly useless CDs, here’s what to know about upcycling.

What Is Upcycling?

Upcycling is transforming an old or unwanted object into something useful. You might craft an old pallet into a headboard, or turn a broken trash can into a garden planter.

“Not only do you save a ton of money, but you create unique, one-of-a-kind pieces,” says professional upcycler Sarah Teresinski. “And to top it all off, you lower your carbon footprint.”

In recent years upcycling has surged in popularity, due to the pandemic and our growing interest in sustainability. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 9.8 million tons of furniture end up in landfills every year.

“What’s more, half of that furniture could have been saved!” says vintage furniture upcycler Liz Clarkson. “But the benefits of upcycled furniture are not purely environmental. Designer upcycling is a whole new ball game that is shaking up the interior design industry and making forward-thinking people the envy of their friends and family.”

What’s the Difference Between Upcycling and Recycling?

Recycling is an industrial process that turns used materials into new products. Upcycling, on the other hand, means giving old or broken items a new purpose. Usually “upcyclers” do this in an artistic way, making the items more desirable than in their previous form.

Unlike recycling, upcycling can be done by anyone. “I want people not to be intimidated by upcycling,” says Teresinski. “Start small, make it fun and don’t be afraid to mess up! Some of the best design upcycles are perfectly imperfect.”

Why Is Upcycling Important?

Creating new products from existing objects means less reliance on mining and logging. It also reduces pollution and greenhouse gases from manufacturing, shipping and items decomposing in landfills.

“There is such a tremendous amount of waste in every aspect of our lives,” says Blair Stocker, founder of Wise Craft Handmade. “What would the benefits to the planet be if we all just made the decision to mend clothing and embrace furniture dings and scratches as the beginning of its next phase?

“I think it’s so important to model that sort of thinking for my own kids and empower them to expand their imagination when they look at something that could be disposable.”

Upcycling is closely linked to sustainability, or shifting our economic system to one that doesn’t create excessive waste. Our current linear economic system relies on taking materials from the Earth for products that we eventually throw away.

A so-called circular economy, where we reuse and repurpose everything, would greatly ease the stress on our natural resources, atmosphere, water and livestock.

“Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” says Clarkson. “In our own day-to-day lives it’s important to remember that our actions will affect the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Beyond the environmental benefits, upcycling saves money and flexes our imaginations and creativity. It helps us feel happier and more accomplished while giving us one-of-a-kind designs that reflect our personalities and match the style of our homes.

What Can Be Upcycled?

With a little creativity and patience, nearly anything can be upcycled. Think tools, jars, skateboards, filing cabinets, books and even ceiling fan blades. You can also make common household items, like seed starter kits and home storage systems. This way you don’t have to buy new ones.

“I think it’s good to adopt a what-can-I-upcycle mindset before buying something new,” says Stocker. “Often the outcome is way more interesting. Could an old sweater that doesn’t fit but is still cute become a cozy pillow? Could a table get a coat of paint and some new drawer pulls instead of trashing it?

“I believe it’s important to commit to living with the things you possess in your life — not replacing them when they are tired, but instead updating them in some way. And you might just untap some hidden creativity in the process.”