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What Is Upcycling and Why It’s Important

Inside: A discussion about what upcycling is and the benefits of upcycling for the environment and society.

As the creator of an award-winning upcycling blog, journalists, relatives, friends, and other bloggers often ask me, “what is upcycling?”.   Many already know what upcycling is or have a good idea, but they want to hear my take on it. 

In this post, I will not only answer that question, but I’ll produce some concrete examples of upcycling and repurposing.

What Is Upcycling? The Short Answer

My definition of upcycling is “revamping the unloved and mundane into something much more useful or beautiful and creative“.  

This is similar to the Cambridge Dictionary definition,” the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc., out of old or used things or waste material.

What Is Upcycling? The Long Answer

Upcycling is a relatively new word that has existed since the late ’90s. The spell checker on my computer doesn’t even recognise the word!

The Cambridge Dictionary recognised the increasing popularity of upcycling by voting it as the word of the year in 2019.

What Is The Difference Between Upcycling & Recycling?

Upcycling is a process of transforming waste materials or unwanted products into new and higher-value items. It’s different from recycling, which breaks down materials into their raw components to create new products, because upcycling transforms existing materials into something entirely new.

Recycling focuses on reducing waste in landfills and conserving natural resources using recycled materials instead of virgin ones.

Upcycling focuses on repurposing waste materials and giving them a new life rather than simply reducing waste in landfills.

Another difference between upcycling and recycling is the energy and resources required for each process. Recycling often requires significant energy and resources to collect, sort, and process waste materials. Upcycling can be more energy-efficient because it doesn’t require the same energy and resources.

Sometimes upcycling is referred to as revamping, transforming and repurposing. Technically recycling is about converting waste and rubbish into reusable material. However, if that new material is considered better than the original, you could call it upcycling.

upcyling word of the year

What Are The Benefits of Upcycling

  1. Environmental – It’s a great way to reduce waste and promote sustainability by reducing waste in landfills and minimising our ecological impact.
  2. Engery-efficient – Upcycling requires less energy than recycling to break down materials and create new products. This can help conserve natural resources and reduce our carbon footprint.
  3. Fun and creative way to repurpose old or unwanted items. Instead of throwing something away, you can use your creativity to transform it into something new and unique. This can be a great way to save money and add a personal touch to your home decor, fashion, or other projects.
  4. Help support local businesses and communities. By purchasing upcycled products or supporting upcycling initiatives, we can help create jobs and support small companies committed to sustainability and environmental stewardship.
  5. Upcycling can inspire others to adopt sustainable practices and promote a culture of environmental responsibility. By showcasing the beauty and value of upcycled products, we can encourage others to think differently about waste and embrace more sustainable practices in their daily lives.
  6. Psychological – There are therapeutic benefits to upcycling. It’s very relaxing to use the right side of your brain for a change by indulging in a creative task such as painting an old piece of furniture
  7. Sense of achievement -Slowing down and taking the time to revamp and upcycle something can be relaxing and a confidence booster. Just saying, “I made that“, can make you feel really good and that you have created something new from something old.

Examples of Upcycling

Overall, the possibilities for upcycling are endless. With a bit of creativity and imagination, almost anything can be upcycled. Pillarboxblue is full of a beautiful range of upcycling tutorials, and there is a comprehensive A to Z list of clever upcycling ideas here.  

Things that can be upcycled; more detailed examples will follow.

  1. Furniture – update your existing pieces or thrift something from a store or dumpster.
  2. Old clothing & fabrics -can be upcycled into new and fashionable items like scarves, bags, or skirts. Material can also be cut into pieces and used as patchwork for quilts or other home decor items.
  3. Pallets and scrap wood – including old windows and doors.
  4. Glass jars and bottles: Glass jars and bottles can be upcycled into various items like vases, candle holders, or storage containers.
  5. Tin cans and plastic containers – Into planters, lanterns & storage
  6. Paper & cardboard products: Old newspapers, magazines, maps, or books can be upcycled into new items like gift bags, stationery, or art prints.
  7. Electronic devices: Old electronic devices, like computers or cell phones, can be upcycled into new and useful items like clocks, speakers, or lamps. These can be disassembled and reassembled with new parts to create a unique and functional piece.

1. Furniture Ideas

Old furniture, whether it’s updating a piece you already have or buying or picking up something secondhand from Freecycle, an auction, junk or charity shop. Old pieces of furniture are often sturdier and made to a higher standard than the mass-produced pieces today.

Upcycled furniture tends to be one-off. It is a brilliant way to make your stamp in your home by creating something unique that reflects your taste and personality.

Upcycling furniture may involve painting or decoupage with paper, or wallpaper is one of the easiest ways to transform furniture, from tables to old mirrors. Maps are a great way to personalise something and add meaning to it.  

For example, I was born and raised in Hong Kong; my husband’s family is from Norway, and a couple of wooden chairs in the dining room are upcycled, one with a Norwegian map and the other with a city map of Hong Kong.

Personalised map chairs, one with a Norwegian map and the other with a London tube map.

Map chairs

Upcycled bench with Marimekko decoupage

DIY Marimekko Bench

I’m more attached to the upcycled furniture in my home than the stuff I’ve bought. The pieces are like part of the family as they have my personality (not to mention sweat and tears in some cases) in them. I feel pride in having created them.

A chalk paint upcycled cupboard.

The best chalk paint cupboard upcycle with Annie Sloan Red Emperors Silk, decoupaged vintage graphics (Cavallini's insect gift wrap) and printable window decals. Full tutorial.

Upcycled drawers into a bathroom cabinet.

Upcycled drawers into a handy wall storage unit. A step by step tutorial.

2. Old Clothing Ideas

You can upcycle fabrics, including denim, cotton clothing and bedding, sweaters, and old leather handbags. You can even make many cool things from fabric scraps.

Far too much secondhand (and unsold) clothing ends up in a landfill. It could be repurposed and upcycled into something more useful. “The value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion. It is also estimated that £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfills yearly.

Nothing makes me smile more than when a relative brings a pile of old jeans (forget the bottle of wine). Denim is such a robust material and comes in lovely shades of indigo. It’s such fun to repurpose.

Whether it’s to upcycle an old worn chair by reupholstering it in denim, make new pillows, planters or even cute dog toys,  no part of a pair of jeans is safe. The seams, hems, pockets and scraps get crafted with.

Ideas for upcycling and repurposing denim for the home.

40 plus denim upcycling projects

If you felt wool sweaters by shrinking them on a hot wash in the washing machine, you can cut and craft with them; they won’t fray. I’ve made cosy throw blankets, soft knot pillows and even Scandinavian decorations from old sweaters.

Felt rug for the home, made from recycled sweaters or a rag rug.

Don’t worry if you are not a confident seamstress; you can still make plenty of things from old clothes that are no-sew. You can make them without having to use a single stitch.

3. Scrap Wood and Pallet Ideas

Walking past a skip (dumpster) and not having a good look is not an option for me. I can’t help myself. Often I will find lovely bits of old wood in a skip.

I’ve made benches from old scaffolding boards and broken chairs rescued from a skip.

Repurposed scaffolding board bench using broken chair legs.

Easy DIY scaffolding board furniture. Combine the legs of an old dining chair with a scaffolding board for a unique upcycled wooden bench.

Where there is a skip, often there are pallets too. I always ask but have yet to be refused a pallet from a builder. They are more than happy for someone else to cart them away. Pinterest and Facebook are full of thousands of ideas for upcycling pallets.

I turned a plain old pallet into a fabulous colourful Moroccan wall planter to brighten my garden.

A happy hour cocktail window and window herb planter brighten up my backyard. Both were upcycled sash windows rescued from a local skip. There is an excellent collection of garden upcycles here.

Upcycled window herb planter - free tutorial and template

We upcycled a wooden Christmas tree with knobs on.

Upcycled flat Christmas tree made from reclaimed wood and cabinet knobs and hooks.

4. Glass and China Ideas

Wine bottles, gin bottles, glass jars, old tiles, broken crockery and cups can all be repurposed into an array of fabulous things.

Mosiac wall planter made from broken China

Don't throw away your beautiful broken plates and bowls why not upcycle them into a gorgeous mosaic wall planter. Lovely in the garden with bedding plants or in the kitchen with herbs

5. Tin Cans & Plastics Ideas

Amazingly, you can upcycle an old tin can and plastic cartons into planters. Most planters in my home and garden are upcycled tin cans, whether decoupaged, painted or covered in fabric.

Tin cans upcycled into oriental-style DIY flower pots.

DIY flower pots

Plastic Bottle Succulents in upcycled glass terrariums.

Mini faux succulent terrariums from plastic bottle

6. Paper & Cardboard Ideas

One side effect of online shopping is the amount of cardboard packaging we acquire. Instead of putting all of it into the recycling bin, I keep some aside for crafts and upcycling, like with these beautiful cardboard Christmas craft ideas.

I’ve made decorative birdhouses, Christmas decorations, picture frames and quirky upcycled storage boxes.

Old road maps have to be one of my favourite things to upcycle. Red roads, blue waterways and green spaces all on vintage paper add to the lovely look of old maps. The right colours to upcycle into map Christmas crackers.

Add extra interest and that personal element to an upcycle by using a road map of somewhere special. Decoupage with them, make map lampshades or even decorative ornaments.

Upcycled map floor lamp with denim trim and stand.

Upcycled floor lamp with roadmaps and denim

7. Other Upcycling Ideas

So many other things can be upcycled, from old toys, sports equipment, suitcases, radios, crates, sails, etc.

The list is endless; the BBC TV program “Money For Nothing” always amazes me with its upcycling creativity from other people’s rubbish.

We upcycled vintage suitcases with maps for a more updated look.

Tutorial for a vintage map suitcase

We repurposed denim and a crate it into a rolling storage ottoman.

Make a nifty DIY ottoman with storage from a pair of jeans and an IKea Crate

Upcycled lampshades into a rustic Christmas tree.

repurposed lamp wire rustic Christmas tree

How To Start Upcycling

Our imagination is the best tool for upcycling; it helps to envisage the transformation. If you are unsure where to start, browsing on Pinterest is bound to get those creative juices flowing.

On Facebook, individuals show off their unique creations in specialist upcycling groups.

Two of my favourites are Upcycle Sharin’ and Upcycled Cloth Collective. I find a post in one of these groups that inspires me almost every day and gets those upcycling creative juices flowing.

People say creativity can’t be learned. I’m afraid I have to disagree; I think creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more you use that muscle, the more robust it will get.

I start by making something small when I have a bit of a creative block. The act of making seems to trigger neurons in my brain; the creative ideas flow once more.

Besides all the benefits of upcycling, I listed, in the beginning, that one of the best things about it is that there is no right or wrong way.

I rarely made a hash of an upcycle when it hasn’t gone to plan. But as I tend to use waste materials, it doesn’t matter.

I can’t wait to start my next upcycling project!

You might want to check out these ideas for crafting from waste materials and the types of crafts you can use to get started.

Pin for later

what is upcycling pin

Balony na Chrzest Święty

Wednesday 27th of March 2024

I'm thoroughly impressed by the depth of your analysis in this post. Your perspective is both unique and enlightening.

Claire Armstrong

Thursday 28th of March 2024

Thank you so much, upcycling is a passion of mine.

Panele Fotowoltaiczne

Monday 19th of February 2024

You've done a fantastic job with this post. It's full of insights and beautifully presented.

Claire Armstrong

Monday 19th of February 2024

Thank you so much.


Sunday 15th of May 2022

Thanks for your article. Was looking for inspiration, I'm about to open a shop for upcycled material and furniture. Your article is exactly what I needed. Thanks

Claire Armstrong

Sunday 15th of May 2022

That's good to hear, thank you. Good luck with your shop.

Susan Fordyce

Friday 7th of May 2021

How fun is this!!!!!! Thank you for sharing such wonderful ideas. Your personal world must be amazingly delightful. Joyful!

Claire Armstrong

Friday 7th of May 2021

Thank you so much, it is 😊


Tuesday 8th of September 2020

Very inspiring article Claire! I love the London tube chair and the denim crafts!

Claire Armstrong

Wednesday 9th of September 2020

Thank you so much. Denim is one of my favorite materials to work with.