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upcycle

verb [intransitive/transitive]

to reuse an object or materials to create a product of higher value or quality than the original object or materials

upcycled

adjective

upcycling

noun [uncountable]

upcycler

noun [countable]

'Empty pet-food bags. Dusty bottle caps. Old notebooks. All useless. Not to a handful of local artists who upcycle. That's the buzzword for turning trash into higher-value items, rather than breaking it down into lesser quality products, the fate of most recycled goods.'

North Forty News 31st August 2010

'With Mad Men mania sweeping the nation, why not do like Don Draper and freshen up your wardrobe with a pair of classy cufflinks, made from upcycled coins?'

Inhabitat 18th August 2010

'Much of Usher's design philosophy relies on upcycling, which means that she is turning pieces of clothing, tea bags, toilet paper, egg crates, and pine cones into something valuable.'

Got Apparel 31st August 2010

'Rather than throwing that bag or hosepipe into the recycle bin, how about turning it into a belt or a shower curtain, joining a growing band of upcyclers?'

Reuters 30th September 2009

Earrings which in a former life opened a can of Coke, wooden shelves on which a young skateboarder used to ride, a vinyl clock which once rotated on a turntable and produced a tuneful noise … The connection between all these innovative products is the idea of taking something old and looking at it in a new way, deciding how its shape and form might suit another purpose. They are are all examples of a new take on reusability known as upcycling.

an upcycled product is generally of higher value than the materials used to create it – metal ring pulls or can tops become jewellery, low-value coins become cufflinks

To upcycle something is to take a used object and adapt it in an innovative way to a new function. Unlike recycling, which usually involves breaking down the material an object is made from, before it is made into something else (thereby using more energy), upcycling involves using something in a new way without doing anything to reprocess the material it's made from. As well as being more energy efficient, another major benefit of upcycling is that it makes it possible to reuse items made of materials which couldn't be dealt with by conventional recycling methods. When something is upcycled, nothing, or very little, is discarded, with every component part or material having a potential use.

An upcycled product is generally of higher value than the materials or objects used to create it – hence examples like metal ring pulls or can tops becoming jewellery items such as brooches or earrings, low-value coins becoming cufflinks, and so on. If you'd like to see some other examples of upcycled products, check out the website of upcycling enterprise TerraCycle, which takes waste items like sweet wrappers, drinks cartons and cosmetics tubes, and turns them into bags, photo frames, kites, and much more.

Background – upcycle

There is some evidence for use of the word upcycle as far back as 1994, but the term was first brought into the spotlight by US architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart in a 2002 book entitled Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In the book, McDonogh and Braungart use upcycle to describe the process of taking an object which is essentially a piece of waste and moving it 'up' the consumer goods chain (hence the word's use of up in place of re-). Upcycling stands in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as downcycling – the process of converting waste materials or unwanted products into new materials or products of lesser quality.

Upcycle follows the pattern of verb recycle and has related forms upcycled, upcycling and upcycler. Though the term upcycle has yet to enter a mainstream dictionary, the concept is becoming increasingly established, and a popular offshoot is what is now sometimes described as trashion, art and fashion items made from used or discarded objects (a blend of trash and fashion).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 18th October 2010.

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