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Upcycling: What Is Upcycling? 73 Ways to Repurpose Items

There’s no limit to the types of actions you can take when living a green-minded lifestyle. One habit leads you to another, and soon you discover there are dozens of interconnected ways to improve your stewardship of the Earth.

Upcycling is a term you may be familiar with if you’ve spent any amount of time reading how to live eco-friendly. The best part is most upcycling projects only require a few materials you likely have lying around your house, and some don’t require additional tools at all.

Upcycling offers almost unlimited ways to save money and repurpose objects you already have. Keep reading for the essentials of upcycling including dozens of ideas to get started.

upcycled wreaths

What Is Upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of taking one or more discarded materials and rebuilding and/or repurposing them to a new object or tool more valuable than the original pieces. The word “upcycling” was first used in 1994 when several engineers coined it as a way to refer to objects being repurposed without recycling them.

Millions of eco-friendly lifestyle enthusiasts have grown from using existing methods of upcycling to developing thousands of their own creations and methods of reuse. Some of the earliest examples of upcycling include turning old clothing into aprons, rags, and cloths and sanding down the edges of broken jars or glasses to reuse them as flowerpots, utensil holders, and reusable paper towel holders.

In many ways, upcycling is an Earth-minded trend that’s still coming into its heyday. Only one in five Americans upcycle and this percentage varies widely on a global scale.

It’s easier and more fun upcycling when you have practical examples of what to create. The rest of this article is dedicated to providing all kinds of upcycling ideas you can use within minutes of reading.

Without further ado, check out the basics of upcycling now!

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Upcycled Furniture

Furniture upcycling has been around for centuries as people have taken old furniture legs or stands and combined them with new materials to sit on. Modern chairs, couches, tables, and hightops get upcycled more often now and give rise to never-before-seen furniture functionalities.

We compiled the most fun and practical upcycled furniture variations you can use whether you have one or several pieces of furniture to repurpose. Take a look at these flawless upcycled furniture ideas:

  • Combined containers, shelves, and drawers
  • Repainted chairs, tables, couches, stools, drawers, and cabinets
  • Reupholstered chairs and couches
  • Side table made of books
  • Upcycling an old crib into toy, craft, or clothing storage

closeup view of plants in upcycling planter

Upcycling Ideas

Want to take your passion for upcycling as far as it can go? There are thousands of objects you can upcycle with and just as many methods, but that’s more than enough for a beginner.

Upcycling has unlimited potential but that doesn’t mean you need to do it all. Here are 21 of the coolest upcycling ideas you can leverage with materials sitting around your home right now:

  1. Turn old wine corks into new drink coasters
  2. Use broken plates and ceramics for a new and improved bird bath
  3. Use old magazines and papers as a garland for entryways, above fireplaces, or in dens
  4. Revamp your old cardboard into better storage containers
  5. Turn lemon rinds into lemon soap
  6. Upcycle old quilts or clothing into a new quilt
  7. Redecorate old wine bottles for a new indoor aesthetic
  8. Aluminum cans repurposed into hanging plants or potters
  9. Reusing glass jars as planters or floating candle bases
  10. Repurposing old or unused crayons into a new candle
  11. Upcycle a broken washing machine drum into an outdoor fire pit
  12. Upcycled jewelry organizer
  13. Repurposing an old door, table, or other wood piece into a gardening bed
  14. Turn a broken or old guitar into a shelving unit
  15. Repurpose old drawers into basement or under-bed storage
  16. Turn unused or unwanted wooden crates and boxes into shelving
  17. Repurpose old containers or metal boxes into a gift wrap or crafting station
  18. Upcycle old drawers, handles, or shelving materials into a DIY coat rack
  19. Turn old tennis rackets into a new trellis
  20. Hang old teacups, coffee cups, or tin cans from hooks and twine as patio bird feeders
  21. Repurpose unused quilting or crafting fabric into gift wrap to prevent the need for paper or plastic gift wrap

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Upcycling Clothes

Upcycling clothes is one of the oldest and most cost-effective ideas in the upcycling space. The typical American spends about $120 on new clothes per month but about 85% of clothes end up in a landfill. That’s like wasting $1,200 every year!

Upcycling your clothes prevents money from going to waste and reduces your spending for other household needs, too. Check out these 12 unbeatable upcycling clothes ideas:

  1. Turn an old pair of jeans into a tablet cover
  2. Repurpose baby clothes into a throw pillow cover
  3. Upcycle blue jeans into a welcome mat
  4. Turn an old sweater into a perfectly sized handbag
  5. Upcycle old jeans or pants into a table runner
  6. Repurpose an unwanted sweater into beverage cup sleeves
  7. Turn old flannel shirts into a brand new, eye-catching quilt
  8. Upcycle old ties into zippered bags that hold accessories
  9. Repurpose an old scarf into a camera or camcorder strap
  10. Turn unwanted socks or flannel wear into fake cacti for indoor decorations
  11. Upcycle old pants or pajamas into holiday stockings
  12. Repurpose an old t-shirt into a reusable produce bag

Upcycle Shoes

Upcycling shoes is a creative way to turn otherwise discardable products into like-new footwear. From sandals and sneakers to slippers and heels, the sky is the limit when it comes to upcycling footwear.

Check out these amazing five ways you can upcycle shoes:

  1. Add eco-friendly soles and iron on a print for a brand new design
  2. Turn old shoes into herb gardens
  3. Grow indoor succulents or other plants in the ball of the sole(s)
  4. Add weight to the bottoms and make them bookends
  5. Repurpose old flip-flops into a spring or summer “wreath” for your door

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Upcycled Jewelry

Upcycling jewelry is a fun activity you can do solo, with your spouse, or family members. Fashion trends are always changing and what’s in today may be out of style tomorrow.

That’s no excuse to throw out jewelry once its fashion utility has disappeared, though. Jewelry is often expensive and deserves a second or third life. Tap into your creative side with these six upcycled jewelry possibilities:

  1. Turn vintage jewelry into a photo or mirror frame
  2. Combine old gold jewelry with new pieces for a brand new look
  3. Take old jewelry to a goldsmith or jeweler and ask them to make a new piece
  4. Add silver jewelry to a new or existing piece for a fresh design
  5. Combine pieces of multiple bracelets for a new piece
  6. Use old necklaces, bracelets, rings, and gems as a decorative cover for a box or container

upcycled jeans on table

Upcycle Jeans

Jeans are one of the best items to upcycle because they’re ubiquitous, durable, and super modifiable. Research shows that the average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans and the average man owns six, but most people only use four pairs.

That means you have at least two to three pairs of jeans that you’ve never worn or haven’t worn in months or years. Why not use them to make something cool for your home, office, or significant other?

Check out these 10 amazing ways you can upcycle jeans:

  1. Turn old jeans into new luggage tags
  2. Repurpose multiple jeans into a utility room or bathroom rug
  3. Upcycle jeans into placemats and coasters
  4. Turn an old pair of jeans into a handbag
  5. Reuse your old jeans’ seams as gift, bag, or storage ties
  6. Upcycle multiple pairs of jeans into a brand new quilt
  7. Repurpose jeans into cornhole / Baggo bags
  8. Remove specific portions of jeans and redesign them as holiday ornaments
  9. Combine other materials with jeans material into an upcycled wreath
  10. Recreate jeans as a purse, backpack, slippers, potholders, or office supplies holders

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Upcycled Art

Believe it or not, art can be upcycled too! Perhaps you have a painting, sculpture, mosaic, or other art piece that just doesn’t sing like it used to. Upcycled art also makes a perfect Earth Day activity, whether with your children, partner, or yourself.

Here are 14 of the coolest ways you can minimize waste and upcycle art:

  1. Repurpose faux or real dried flowers and create a wreath
  2. Take broken birdbaths, mosaics, and concrete stepping stones, break them down, and create a brand new stone or piece of art
  3. Use old blankets, t-shirts, pants, jackets, and bags to fashion a new quilt
  4. Upcycle old yarn, twine, or rope into moss balls for an Earth-friendly decor idea
  5. Repurpose old soda bottles, glasses, plastic containers, or partly broken potters into hanging gardeners or planters
  6. Take old cardboard, newspapers, magazines, and paper products, cut them up, and reuse them in different shapes and sizes as new 2D art
  7. Use old metal or aluminum jar lids as wind chimes that hang from a scavenged stick and organic/reused twine
  8. Combine random, discarded objects and old pieces of toys to create an upcycled maze or toy landscape
  9. Use old magazines, brochures, and newspapers to create collages, papier-mâché, prints, or any other kind of artwork
  10. Upcycle an old skateboard into a redecorated shelving unit or a ring
  11. Turn a hubcap into the base for an artistic sculpture like a metallic tree, landscape, animal, or other object
  12. Repurpose one or more old tires into a chair, side table, or lamp base
  13. Use or find junk from junkyards and manufacturers to create an outdoor bench or backyard patio seat (make sure you clean it first)
  14. Upcycle old burlap, cotton, or fabric and plastic or metal caps into a portable tic-tac-toe board

shirts and jackets at clothing resale shop

Frequently Asked Questions About Upcycling

Upcycling isn’t always easy to understand at first glance. Knowing what differentiates it from recycling and repurposing is helpful so you can take more meaningful environmental actions at work and home.

We were curious about the nuances of upcycling too, so we researched the most commonly asked questions about it. Check out the questions and our answers below:

What Is the Difference Between Upcycling and Recycling?

The difference between upcycling and recycling is that upcycling involves taking one or more old products and adding it to another to produce something new, whereas recycling simply submits used materials to be reproduced into the same product.

Upcycling is about using what you have to produce something newer or better, and recycling is about minimizing the amount of trash you generate. Both are effective means of living a low- or no-waste lifestyle and reducing the amount of refuse that ends up in landfills.

What Is the Problem With Upcycling?

One downside of upcycling is that many materials have limited reuse potential. For example, if you’re getting rid of a plastic step stool, you might only be able to turn that into outdoor furniture, plastic shelving, or some kind of decorative banner.

If you have several materials that you want to upcycle but don’t know what to do with them, consider selling or donating them at a garage sale first. This can rehome them so they don’t end up in the trash.

Where Is Upcycling Most Popular?

Germany has one of the highest country-wide rates of recycling and upcycling. As much as 70% of all packaging materials are recycled in Germany and some demographic groups upcycle up to 30% of the products they buy. German lawmakers and cultural desires have led to the country being a trendsetter for environmental betterment.

Is Upcycling Ethical?

Yes, upcycling is an ethical action. You’re taking existing products and reconstructing or redesigning them into a new product, either by itself or with additional materials around your home.

Upcycling is ethical because you’re reducing the amount of new purchases you make. This means less reliance on the pervasive consumer market, fewer goods to dispose of, and less need for mass-produced products.

Does Upcycling Make Money?

Whether or not upcycling can be an income stream depends on how much effort you put into it and the sales and marketing strategies behind your work. If you only upcycle in your spare time and for fun, you may only make a few dollars here and there.

On the other hand, if you actively collect goods for upcycling projects, create beautiful products, and actively sell them online, you can make a decent side income. All of it depends on what products you make, how appealing they are, and what kinds of buyers they’re suited for.

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