Content starts here

Upcycling: Everything Old Is New Again

I always find it interesting when something that’s been around for generations is rediscovered and gains new levels of popularity simply because it has a new name. That’s the case with “upcycling.” It’s the practice of taking would-be throwaway items and, rather than just recycling them back into raw materials, transforming them into something new and different, something more “upscale” than the original.

As far as I can tell, the word “upcycle” was coined only about 20 years ago (apparently in Germany), even though a Google search of the word today turns up more than 8 million references. And search for the word on the popular “visual discovery” website Pinterest, and you might just think that the entire site is devoted to creative upcycling projects. They range from lamps made out of disposable plastic spoons to car tire coffee tables, house key wind chimes and a greenhouse made from plastic soda bottles. I defy you to check out the upcycling photo galleries on and not find at least one project that leaves you thinking, I am going to try that!

Of course the fact is that while the word “upcycling” may be relatively new, the practice of creating new and improved items out of things you might otherwise throw away goes back virtually to the dawn of humankind. Rather than throw that mammoth tusk in the trash heap after dinner, Clovis Man realized that he could shape it into a dandy new weapon with which to bludgeon more mammoths. American pioneers knew that empty tin cans should be treasured, not trashed, and fashioned them into a handy lanterns or other utilitarian objects. And during the Great Depression, my grandparents and tens of millions of other Americans took “upcycling” to new heights, although for them it was all part of the Depression-era credo, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Upcycling would-be garbage into something new, useful or even beautiful is not only good for the environment and our bank accounts, it can also be a fun — and usually FREE — hobby. On the weekly Web show I host for AARP, The Cheap Life, we’ve upcycled everything from bubble wrap and eggshells to vegetable peels and toilet paper rolls. (Speaking of which, did you know that every year in the U.S. we throw away enough empty toilet paper tubes to fill the Empire State Building, twice?) Check out this new episode of The Cheap Life where I’ll show you how to turn wooden packing pallets into some very “palatable” home decorating items. Stay Cheap!

# # #


Search AARP Blogs