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The Upcycling Revolution: Easy Projects to Try

by Mr Yellow

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They say that one man's trash is another man's treasure. So if you're the type of person who hates to throw anything away and you're deeply concerned for the environment, there's an inventive way not to waste waste and to turn your unwanted items into original DIY projects. Enter upcycling - the latest trend behind sustainability breakthroughs. Here we make a nosedive into the ins and outs of upcycling, so you can get your creative juices flowing and turn your trash into treasure.

What is upcycling and why is it so important?

Also known as creative reuse, upcycling is the process of modifying products, such as waste materials or useless and unwanted items into new ones. Used on a range of products including jewellery, furniture and an assortment of bits and bobs, some upcycling examples consist of making bracelets from old flip flops or turning skateboards into chairs. With a little inventiveness and imagination, any by-product can be transformed into a new eco-friendly item.

You might have thought that upcycling is still in its infancy, however, many have been effectively upcycling for years, using clothing or old packaging in new ways. In effect, the word 'upcycling' was coined by German engineer and upcycler Reiner Pilz who dubbed the recycling trend of the 1990s as downcycling, while he stressed the importance of giving more value to old products. It has been used in artwork and other industries since the beginning of the 20th century as a means to save money and since the financial crash of 2008, it has become even more popular. The process has shown significant growth with a number of products on both Etsy and Pinterest tagged under the keyword 'upcycled'.

So what's the difference between upcycling and recycling?

Recycling involves taking objects that are no longer useful to us and breaking them down into their raw materials to produce new items. Typically, these are simply a newer version of the same product, which means that a plastic bottle will be converted into another plastic bottle, whereas your junk mail will be recycled into either paper for use in printing or paperboard for packaging.

For years, recycling has been touted as the primary means of conserving our natural resources, protecting our ecosystem and wildlife, cutting down on climate-changing carbon emissions and saving up on energy, amongst other things. Yet, although it is considered one of the best ways to reduce our environmental impact, recycling does consume energy and resources, while there is some loss of recovery each time an item goes through the cycle, resulting in a lower quality product in comparison to the original one.

But there is an even better way to reduce our eco-footprint. In comes upcycling. Aside from minimising the volume of discarded materials and waste overpopulating our landfills each year, by simply giving pre-existing items a new lease on life, upcycling reduces the need for production using new or raw materials - fewer oil wells drilled for plastic, fewer trees felled for paper and fewer mountains mined for metals. This also translates into a reduction in air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and greater conservation of our global resources. Bearing in mind that our planet hardly has enough room for us these days, let alone for all our waste, upcycling is more environmentally sustainable and can also be greener than recycling.

And there is one more important factor. At a time when we've become so used to things being mass manufactured and produced in a heartbeat, we've become accustomed to buying things as quickly as we throw them away. But did you know that for instance, it takes around 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make just one t-shirt? By repurposing products, upcycling is not only saving the planet, but it's also kicking products' value and quality up a notch.

From trash to luxury and beyond

As sustainability continues being a major trend across a variety of industries, upcycling has increasingly become a stronghold in the retail realm with numerous businesses and brands adapting themselves so as to be able to offer sustainable solutions to their customers. For example, luxury-goods firm Hermes repurposes scraps from its signature scarves and Birkin bags for a new home furnishings and accessories line called Petit H.

At the same time, sustainable businesses have mushroomed in all corners of the world, forging novel value-chains for their processes and products and therefore minimising their global carbon footprint. British company Elvis & Kresse (otherwise known as E&KO) is one such company known for developing unprecedented ways in repurposing industrial waste by amassing fire hoses, parachute silk, coffee and tea sacks, amongst other things, and transforming them into new luxury products, such as bags, belts and wallets. Across the Atlantic Ocean, TerraCycle was set up to collect non-recyclable packaging and products and repurpose them into affordable and innovative items. Drink pouches are turned into backpacks and cookie wrappers into pencil cases or kites.

Locally, this push ahead towards a green revolution is still gaining momentum, however, innovators in this sphere have stepped forward using upcycling as a treasure trove for green business ideas. One of the most well-known names, Shabby Chic, largely dominates the furniture upcycling market in Malta, while nestled in Valletta's Melita street, you'll find Cekcik, a small store selling an eclectic range of products, most of which consist of old solid wood items lovingly restored and painted.

Moving on from retail and truly highlighting upcycling's resourcefulness, perhaps one of the most innovative solution is that implemented by a bunch of youths in Paraguay known as the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, who play instruments made from discarded items. For example, a cello is made from an oil barrel with wooden spoons and a stiletto heel for tuning pegs, whereas drum heads are made from old X-ray films held in place with several layers of packing tape.

Upcycle your way to sustainability

So with upcycling's benefits in mind, we have gathered a collection of projects ranging from easy undertakings ideal for your kids to upcycling projects for newbies and those perfect for DIY pros. So get your hands dirty and upcycle your way to sustainability.

Upcycling projects for kids

The schools are finally out! While your younger kids may rejoice at the prospect of lazing about and your tweens and teens look forward to spending hours engrossed in their tablets and mobiles, perhaps it would be best if their time is used more constructively. Keeping them busy with an upcycling project will help instil a sense of love and respect for this planet we call home, so keep your little ones busy, spark their creativity and teach them a lesson on how important it is to repurpose objects.

1. Bubble blower (ages: 12 months+)

There's no toddler who doesn't get ecstatic with bubbles and anytime is a good time for fashioning a homemade bubble blower. But did you know that bubbles offer more than just bags of fun? From encouraging both gross and fine motor skills to serving as a science lesson, blowing bubbles are a great activity to keep kids busy. Easy to make and with materials that in all likelihood you already have lying around your house, this upcycling project can be enjoyed outdoors or you may want to take it indoors and elevate your kids' bathtime.

You'll need:

How to put it all together:

  • Cut the plastic bottle's bottom off and trace it on the washcloth leaving an inch or so of overlap for the rubber band.
  • Place the washcloth to the cut plastic bottle bottom and affix it with the rubber band.
  • For the bubble solution, you'll need to mix 2 parts dish soap to 1 part water into a small bowl.
  • Go ahead and dip the cloth part of your bubble blower into the mixture and blow away.

2. Egg carton mini copters (ages: 1-3 years)

If you're running low on eggs and have a score of egg cartons to spare, you may want to put your little ones' creativity to work by creating these fun helicopters. This project is perfect for enhancing your kids' creative development, thanks to the painting involved, while the make-believe play that is encouraged here, is what kids do best when they're just being kids.

You'll need:

  • Egg cartons
  • Brushes and paints found at these art supply stores
  • Scissors
  • Paper (any colour you wish)
  • Marker
  • Brass fastener (also known as brad clip)
  • Needle

How to put it all together:

  • Cut your egg carton into single pieces, but cut the tall parts off. These will be needed to attach the copters' blades and tails, so you might need another carton to snip these off to have enough.
  • Paint the single pieces, as well as the reserved tall parts in whatever colour you like and create a half circle at the front to serve as the windscreen. Once the paint has dried, you may fill in any details you wish with the marker, such as intensifying the windscreen or adding a square window on each side.
  • Next, cut strips of paper, approximately 1cm wide by 10cm long and glue two pieces together into a cross shape. These will serve as the helicopters' blades.
  • With the needle make a little hole in the tall parts and the strips of paper and attach these to the top of the helicopter, while you glue the remaining tall parts at the end to act as the tail of each helicopter.

3. Cardboard box doll's house (ages: 4+)

It is a well-known fact that most kids get more excited playing with the box rather than the toy it contains, so why not put it to good use by creating a doll's house? Not only will you be reusing and repurposing the cardboard box, but you'll also be creating a new toy for your little one and a place to store all the dolls. What's more, this project can be configured in a number of ways, so you can transform it into a medieval castle or a soldiers' fort if you have boys.

You'll need:

  • A large box (this will depend on the size of your dolls, as well as the space available)
  • A number of smaller boxes or a bunch of shoe boxes if available
  • A variety of wrapping paper or pieces of material
  • Scissors
  • Good quality glue or a glue gun
  • Permanent marker (optional)
  • Paint

How to put it all together:

  • Use the large box as the main framework of the doll's house and cut pieces of the shoe boxes to be used as dividers when creating the various rooms. If you'd like to make a traditional two-story house, all you need to do is place the dividers into a simple cross shape that will fit across both sides of the box. However, if you'd like to include more rooms, slide in additional dividers.
  • Glue the dividers in place, since doing so, will ensure that they do not fall down once you start adding extra elements.
  • Next, you can decorate each room with a different wrapping paper or pieces of fabric scraps, attaching each piece to the cardboard with some glue. The colourful wrapping paper or material will act as wallpaper, adding colour and interest to your doll's house.
  • In addition, you might want to embellish it even further by creating doors and windows. All you need to do is draw these with a permanent marker.

4. Sock plushie (ages: 10-14 and above)

Does your tween have quite the collection of cute little plushies? How about helping them fuel their creativity with a needle and thread? Inspired by well-renowned plushies like the likes of Mr Toast, Uglydolls, and the ever so popular Pusheen, here we have come up with a simpler version of a cat. Truth be told, this project requires some basic sewing skills, so if you don't have much of an aptitude, you can either skip this project altogether or visit these bookshops to purchase a book or two on sewing.

You'll need:

  • An old sock of your choice
  • Some felt in either black, dark grey or brown, depending on the colour of your sock
  • Scissors
  • Fabric glue
  • Chalk or fabric pen
  • Some cotton for the stuffing
  • Thread
  • Needle

How to put it all together:

  • Turn the sock inside out and lay it flat with the heel flap folded towards the direction of the toe. With a pen outline the ears of the cat on the toe side and mark where the end of your plushie will be (ideally this should be above the heel).
  • Next, sew on the ear outline using backstitch or any other type of stitching that you have mastered, and once you've done that, cut along the ears, but not too close to the stitching.
  • Turn the sock right inside out again and fill it up with the cotton stuffing. Cut along the end bit you have marked and then close the opening with whatever type of stitching you feel is appropriate, such as a running stitch.
  • With the additional part of the sock you have just cut, outline the tail by using the heel as a guide, cut it and then sew part of it onto your plushie. Once you've done so, fill it with a little bit of cotton and sew it up.
  • All that's left at this point is to include the finishing touches. Cut strips from the felt for the body, tail and head, as well as whiskers, while you can also cut two small circles for the eyes.
  • Place these pieces in their respective location and fasten them with a little fabric glue. That's it - your cat plushie is done!

5. Newspaper play structures (ages: 10+)

Are you one of those individuals who still purchase the local newspaper on a daily basis? If you've managed to accumulate a lifetime supply, you might as well do something with it. Perfect for enhancing your children's spatial reasoning, these structures bring geometry and engineering under one roof. This is a relatively easy project to undertake but is best suited for older children, so they can create large structures while they'll have the patience to sit through it from beginning to end.

You'll need:

  • Newspapers
  • Masking tape
  • Scissors
  • Empty kitchen roll (optional)

How to put it all together:

  • To start off, you need to place two full newspaper sheets on top of each other and roll them tightly from one corner to the opposite corner. If you're having difficulties, use an empty kitchen roll and pull it out of the tube. You may also carry on using it throughout the project if you'd like to create an even, overall look.
  • To secure the edges together, just add a piece of masking tape. The good thing about each tube is that it can be easily bent or folded to change the shape and size of the structure to your liking. In reality, there is no hard and fast rule on how to create these structures. Just arm your kids with the necessary items and let them create whatever they want.

Upcycling projects for beginners

If you're new to the whole idea of creating items with your own two hands, you might find upcycling overwhelming. But, in reality, there are literally no limits to what you can create, whereas you'll find that there are a number of projects you can undertake that require little to no prior experience. Having said that, you do need to plan ahead so as to ensure that you have all the right tools and equipment needed for the job. But most importantly, remember to have fun and be bold.

1. Wooden hanger recipe holder

Thought that all you could do with a hanger is hang clothes? Way more useful than you think, in reality, a hanger can store anything and everything ranging from necklaces to bananas. So if you've recently gone through your wardrobe to get rid of some clothes and you have a couple of hangers to spare, here is a useful and clever way of how you can repurpose them. This project is highly versatile, which means that you can make it your own if you don't want to follow the instructions below to a tee.

You'll need:

  • A wooden hanger for trousers with clips
  • Some varnish bought from one of these lacquers and varnishes suppliers
  • Paint, if you'd like to change the colour of your wooden hanger to match that of your kitchen (optional)
  • Permanent marker (optional)
  • Some colourful string and glue (optional)

How to put it all together:

  • If you'd like to change the colour of your hanger, then the first step is to repaint it. Ideally, cover it in two coats of paint for a longer-lasting result.
  • Once the paint is dry, you may either move on to the next step or you may take your hanger up a notch by adding a message. A simple - ' what's cooking?' - should do the trick. The letters can be either painted over with some paint or with a permanent marker.
  • Next, add a thin layer of varnish to seal it. If you'd like to add a little something, you may incorporate a string bow, securing it with some glue.
  • Hang your hanger onto the handle or knob of a kitchen cupboard, so you may view your recipe at eye level.

2. Earring frame organiser

If amassing jewellery and earrings, in particular, is your thing, then you might have difficulties in storing them. Sure, you have the option to chuck everything inside a box, but by doing so, you risk having them all jumbled up. Offering you the opportunity to display them and keep them at arms' length, a better way of storing your precious earrings is to create a frame organiser.

You'll need:

  • Old wooden picture frame to your liking
  • A piece of fabric of your choice (though burlap will look great)
  • Scissors
  • Good quality glue or a glue gun if you have one handy
  • Some paint if you'd like to repaint the frame to a different colour

How to put it all together:

  • If your frame sports a piece of glass or a back make sure you remove them.
  • Measure the amount of fabric you'll need for the inner part of your frame, however, make sure you leave sufficient material around all sides. Cut off the excess material as neatly as possible.
  • With your glue gun draw a line of glue all along the inside edges of the frame where the glass panel used to rest and press the burlap on the glue.
  • Once the glue has dried (you'll need to let it do so for around an hour or so), you may go ahead and stick your earrings inside.

3. Wine bottle nightlight

You'll need:

  • A wine bottle - dead leaf, green, burgundy or claret will do.
  • Fairy lights - you may either opt for normal Christmas lights that will emit this feeling of warmth, or you may go for LED fairy lights that will save you big on your electricity consumption.
  • Some scotch tape

How to put it all together:

  • Wash the bottle inside out and remove any labelling. This might be a somewhat time-consuming feat, so be patient. Start off by moistening the label and then scrub softly with a kitchen sponge.
  • Alternatively, fill a bucket with warm soapy water, immerse the bottle and let it sit in the solution for about an hour or so.
  • Make sure the bottle is completely dry before inserting the lights. To do so, take the end of the string and put it inside the bottle through the mouth. Keep on doing so until most of it is inside the bottle.
  • If you'd like to seal the bottle's mouth, you'll need to prepare its cap by cutting it from any side and stopping towards the middle. To make more of a hole, press a screwdriver into the centre. Pass the wire through the centre of the cap and affix it onto the bottle with some tape.
  • In contrast, if your bottle has a cork, you'll need to drill a small hole and then pass the wiring through it.
  • Turn the lights on and enjoy the ambience.

Upcycling projects for the pro

If you've dabbled in upcycling projects before, then you're well in the know that it enables you to indulge your passion for interiors at a price you can afford. So next time you see a piece of vintage furniture for sale on the high street, scour your nearest charity shop, garage sale or even the basement or attic of an elderly relative instead and see what you can find for a fraction of the price. Have a look at these challenging yet doable projects.

1. Book knife block

Do you have a bunch of old or damaged books lying around? Why not breathe new life into them by transforming them into a knife block? Super easy and super fast to create, this upcycling project will help you display your knives in a unique and impressive way on your kitchen counter.

You'll need:

  • Around 4 or 5 old books
  • Glue gun
  • Thread or yarn
  • An assortment of knives

How to put it all together:

  • Firstly, glue the books together with the help of your trusted glue gun. To do so, grab one book and add some glue in the corners and a little in the middle part.
  • Next, get another book and press it against the first one. You must repeat the process with your remaining books.
  • Once all the glueing is over and done with, get some thread or yarn and wrap it several times around the block of books. Ideally, tie the ends towards the back side of the block so they won't be visible.

2. Used tyre rope ottoman

The perfect stylish addition to your living room, serving as extra seating, an ottoman should be an indispensable element of your space. Yet, why should you purchase mass-produced furniture when you can have a one of a kind piece? Our take on this project involves jute rope coiled around a used tyre. Injecting a raw and natural look to your space, this ottoman goes with almost any colour scheme. So roll your sleeves up, embark on this project, and enjoy hours of relaxation with your feet up.

You'll need:

  • Old tyre
  • Around 6mm plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) cut into two discs with a 55cm diameter
  • Glue gun
  • Some durable jute rope
  • Caulk

How to put it all together:

  • Give your old, used tyre a good wash with soap and hot water to remove any dirt, gunk and anything else that might have accumulated over time. You need to ensure that it is not only dirt-free but that there are no objects like stones wedged into it, otherwise, it will interfere with the glueing. At the same time, you need to let it dry completely, so it is best to leave it outdoors in the sun for a few hours.
  • Next, place the plywood on the tire squeezing a generous amount of glue from your gun under and around the edges of the plywood and tyre.
  • Starting from the top, determine where the plywood's centre is and apply lots of glue on it.
  • Following this, place the rope on the glue and start coiling the rope. Carry on this process until you have covered the entire tyre with the rope, using as much glue as possible, in order for the rope to be securely attached to the tyre's surface.
  • If you like, you may also screw in some furniture castors so you can move the ottoman from place to place as you please. These wheels, castors and glides suppliers will have a wide assortment for you to choose from.

Pro tip: Fill in the threads with caulk to create a smooth surface and let it dry completely.

3. Mosaic floor from real pennies

Talking about putting money into a room, here is a fun way of elevating your floor. This type of flooring is typically used in bathrooms and kitchens, however, you can also create an interesting feature wall. One thing to keep in mind with this project is that it takes a lot of patience and time, so make sure you're armed with an abundance of both.

You'll need:

  • Depending on the size of your space, you'll need many pennies. If you cannot get a hold of these, you can also use 5 euro cents.
  • Set mortar or tile adhesive purchased from a local ironmongery and hardware store
  • Contact paper
  • Grout (a brown or charcoal-coloured grout will allow the coins to stand out)
  • 12 x 12-inch picture frame
  • Rubber gloves

How to put it all together:

  • Measure your floor and start collecting coins! Ask family and friends to help you out. It is hard to estimate how many you will need for your space, while the amount will also depend on how close and tight together you'd like your pennies to be. You might end up needing around 270 pennies per square foot, which translates to around 10,000 coins or so for a room of about 38 square feet.
  • Get your pennies, pour some into the picture frame, and line them up. Next, cut some contact paper (roughly the same size as the frame) and press it firmly over the coins. This will enable you to create tiles out of your pennies, making it easier to apply onto the floor at a later stage. Repeat this process until you have used up all your coins and store these penny tiles into a box until it's time for you to make use of them.
  • Depending on whether you have opted to use set mortar or tile adhesive, prepare it as per the instructions on the packaging. Next, apply a layer of the adhesive, get a penny tile and press it against the floor, contact paper facing upward. Repeat this process until all the floor has been covered.
  • Once you're certain that the coins are dry and set on the mortar or adhesive, you may go ahead and peel the contact paper off.
  • Next, apply the grout as per the instructions. It takes at least 72 hours for the floor to dry out so don't attempt to walk on it beforehand.

Offering you the opportunity to give waste a creative new purpose and possibly making a statement in your home, upcycling is the latest craze and for good reason. Visit these charity shops to get hold of any old items and give the projects outlined above a go. Do your bit for Mother Nature, learn some crafty skills and create one of a kind items.

Keep on discovering local with Yellow!     

Mr Yellow
About Mr Yellow

With a passion for helping others and a desire to making you more efficient, Mr Yellow has managed to arm himself with powerful capabilities making your daily searches a breeze. Putting his knowledge, creativity and wit into action, he also crafts insightful and engaging articles encouraging you to explore the Maltese Islands and experience new adventures, while offering some interesting tips on a number of topics. Ever-present, Mr Yellow always has your back. 

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