The Upcycle

By Monica Hand – April 1, 2021

Austin is not only a fit city, but a green city. Here, Austinites aim high to take care of its natural beauties as much as possible — from reducing plastic bags to investing in solar energy. As recycling continues to be one of the major ways Austinites and people all over the world contribute to taking care of the planet, there has also been a rise in individuals upcycling and repurposing those recycled materials. Here’s what it’s all about and how you can get in on the fun.


What Is upcycling? 

Upcycling happens by taking a discarded or leftover material and giving that material a new life — a new purpose that is much more valuable than the original. This can take form in simple crafting projects, intricate art pieces or creation of a new, usable product. While not mentioned in the original three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), it’s become a common practice because of its creative implications.


Why should I upcycle? 

Upcycling and repurposing materials divert them from ending up in the landfill — so just utilizing a waste material or unwanted object can minimize the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill or as litter in the ocean. Plus, the repurposing of materials takes away demand for the raw material itself to be manufactured again, which can in turn cut back on natural resources like water that is used in the processing procedure. 


What’s the difference between upcycling and recycling?

They are both similar, so it can get confusing about which means what, but “upcycling” is taking a waste or unwanted material and turning it into something new, while “recycling” is taking wasted or unwanted materials and breaking them down in order to turn them into something new. For example, many companies take paper and plastic materials and recycle them by breaking them down and creating a new product out of them. Meanwhile, taking a collection of carpet samples and sewing them together to make a patchwork doormat would be an example of upcycling. Recycling is typically resourceful and practical, while upcycling is much more creatively involved. Both are great and accomplish that same goal of avoiding landfills, so you should always try to reuse, recycle, upcycle or donate your materials to places that can!


How do I get into upcycling locally?

There are some great sustainability organizations and initiatives here in Austin. One highlight is Austin Creative Reuse, which gathers donated materials from companies and individuals and uses the act of repurposing as a means to create community through accessibility and education. At its Creative Reuse Center, which is scheduled to reopen to the public soon, it offers cheap prices on the donated materials and classes to teach basic crafting and repurposing skills. 

ACR is also currently working with the city for a [RE]verse Pitch Competition in which companies, nonprofits and businesses pitch their waste or unwanted materials to social entrepreneurs who then come up with ways to repurpose them. Last year, the winners included taking vinyl and turning them into planters, re-purposing fabric samples into pet beds and sandals, and more.


What should I donate?

The Austin Creative Reuse accepts a wide range of materials. One specific area they are working on is school materials for their Closed Loop School Supply Program, which takes used (but still working and good condition) office supplies and provides them to local classrooms so that schools and students don’t have to buy supplies for the year. 

Other popularly donated materials include fabric samples, tile pieces, packaging, packing peanuts and keyboards, but the full list of what is and isn’t accepted can be found on their website. Some big items they don’t accept are clothing, glass bottles and electronics, but those can easily go to your local Goodwill or thrift store. Always remember that one person’s trash is another’s aesthetic. 


Is the ACR Center just for artists?

No! Everyone is welcome to the Creative Reuse Center when it’s open, and, in fact, Jennifer Evans, the executive director of Austin Creative Reuse, encourages everyone to come by and see what they are all about and what they offer. The facility is large and full of all kinds of low-priced materials anyone is welcome to buy for their office, projects or home. Many professional artists and crafters lead classes, making it a great place to learn new skills or flex those creative muscles. 

The organization and the facility are meant to create accessibility to art and creative supplies while also working to save the planet. Last year alone, the ACR diverted 262k pounds of materials from the landfill, supplied two elementary schools with all of their school supplies and had a 97% diversion rate. 


What can I make? 

Anything you want! You can find all sorts of posts on Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok by searching the hashtag #upcycling, or check out Austin Creative Reuse’s blog for all sorts of inspiration and how-tos. Every month there is a new Instagram challenge from Austin Creative Reuse that focuses on a specific reusable material which can help get you started — or just inspired with all of the intricate designs of the winners. You can also check out an easy tutorial put together by the ACR team for AFM readers to make t-shirt bags or our online-exclusive article on fun spring crafts using recycled and upcycled materials. 

Look around your home and find items you’re looking to get rid of, then brainstorm a fun, new life for the materials. You might just think of something great!


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