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Chances are if you are on this website you’ve heard of upcycling before. But just in case you aren’t 100% sure what it is or how to incorporate it into your own life – below is our keeping it simple guide to what upcycling is, what types of things you can upcycle and how to do it.
Here is what I’ll cover in this post – just click on any link to jump straight to the section you are interested in:
- What is the definition of Upcycling?
- Upcycling vs. Recycling
- The idea of a Circular Economy
- What Upcycling Means for You & I
- Repurpose & Reuse
- What are the benefits of Upcycling?
- What materials can you upcycle? (including project suggestions)
- Where to find materials to Upcycle
- What to do with things you can’t upcycle yourself
- Help us spread the word about Upcycling
What is the definition of Upcycling?
The official dictionary definition of the word upcycle is:
‘to reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. ‘
Simple enough. Except ‘value’ is a pretty subjective term. And reuse can mean a whole host of things.
So below is the (quite a bit longer!) definition of upcycling we use at Upcycle My Stuff:
‘Upcycling involves adding value (in the eye of the beholder or the upcycler) to something that would otherwise have been thrown away, recycled, lost in storage or abandoned. Upcycling can involve repurposing and reusing, refreshing, revamping and reviving or creating and re-creating.’– Upcycle My Stuff
Before I explain what I mean by the terms in our definition I want to quickly touch on the difference between upcycling and recycling.
Upcycling vs. Recycling
Recycling is the ‘action or process’ of converting waste into reusable material.
So for example plastic bottles and other packaging is sometimes melted down to create new plastics for new products like a plastic garden chair.
Traditional Recycling is further down the pecking order in the well known reduce, reuse, recycle advice (and also below upcycling) for several reasons:
- The processes used to recycle old waste materials and convert them into new base materials or raw material takes energy & also money to produce.
- Some materials can only be recycled so many times before they become unusable. The quality of the end product of recycling can often be of a lesser quality than the original.
When you compare that to upcycling the difference is that when you upcycle something you are catching the item before it enters the waste system whether that is landfill or recycling.
So in other words you are taking it ‘up’ out of the waste ‘cycle’.
Therefore upcycling saves energy and cost (to society) and doesn’t involve breaking down the molecular properties of the original item you are upcycling.
The Idea of a Circular Economy
The graphic above from White Monday demonstrates the goal of circular consumption as part of a ‘circular economy’ where society would ideally be reducing the amount of waste that is both thrown away and recycled.
“A circular economy favours activities that preserve value in the form of energy, labour, and materials. This means designing for durability, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling to keep products, components, and materials circulating in the economy. Circular systems make effective use of bio-based materials by encouraging many different uses for them as they cycle between the economy and natural systems.” – Ellen McArthur Foundation
This sort of change would involves a way of life where we all give traditionally discarded materials a second life through creative reuse (more on that below) and making the conscious choice to buy an upcycled item before we buy a new product.
The purpose of upcycling in this context is about changing the way we make things and the way we consume things.
What Upcycling Means for You & I
Wider economic discussions aside upcycling can be great way for the average person to have a postive impact on the world we live in.
By giving new life to household items we might otherwise get rid of (old doors, an old pair of jeans, glass jars – for exampe!) we can not only reduce the strain on the planets natural resources (in a small way), we can also create beautiful items (with a little elbow grease!) that cost us less too!
I’ll touch on some more of the benefits of upcycling below but first I want to clear up some common confusions with the term upcycling and talk about some of the terms I used in the Upcycle My Stuff definition of Upcycling!
Repurpose & Reuse
Some people make a big distinction between repurposing and upcycling. I don’t.
I believe when we are talking about straight up reuse of something old for a new purpose, re-imagining it for that new purpose gives it the added ‘value’ that makes it upcycling.
If you were going to throw it away, but you’ve put your thinking cap on and found a new use for it instead, in my books that’s upcycling.
Classic repurposing & reuse projects would be reusing an old boot as a planter or an upturned fruit crate as a side table.
You don’t have to do very much to these items for them to be useful for another purpose which is where you will find some people making this distinction as they might argue it is still the same old object and you haven’t added any ‘value’.
But if upcycling is going to have any environmental benefits than it makes sense to start with doing the least you can with the least supplies and materials to add the ‘value’ that is referred to in the definition.
Refresh, rejuvenate, revamp & revive.
Clearly there are a lot of R words that describe what I am talking about here. This is about making something old more desirable by doing something to it.
So you might still be using that dresser as a dresser but it isn’t a bog standard pine anymore, you’ve vamped it up with grey chalk paint and a pink neon lighting bolt running up the front (or pretty flowers…you get the idea!).
To illustrate this, below is a before and after photo from on of our readers, Simone Anderson, who brought an old mid century cabinet bang up to date with some Farrow & Ball Paint and lots of masking tape.
She got the cabinet for free too! I think she did a great job.
Create & Re-Create
When I talk about creating and re-creating something for the purposes of upcycling what I mean is crafting existing materials into something wildly different.
So these would be upcycles where you can’t immediately tell what the material was it was made off.
These are some necklace pendants I made using small colour fabric samples that were no longer needed.
This tends to be what a lot of people think of when they refer to upcycling.
I have heard the opinion bandied about that if it isn’t ‘wacky’ it isn’t upcycling. Frankly, I just don’t agree.
Don’t get me wrong I love a wacky upcycle as much as the next person but it isn’t the only thing upcycling is.
Creating and re-creating in terms of upcycling to my mind is using any raw material that would otherwise be a waste product and using it to create something new.
So for example they might source old fire hoses or seatbelts to make bags, used soda cans to make jewellery or old pallet wood to make wine racks.
This is the kind of upcycling society needs to be doing on a much larger scale (see above for a quick definition of the circular economy).
Big businesses and governments have a role to play in promoting more use of waste products as alternatives to newly produced or recycled raw materials for production.
The Benefits of Upcycling
A lot of people like upcycling because it avoids sending the materials used to landfill .
We like that too and it is a big reason behind why I do what I do.
But is upcycling always the most environmental choice? Well I can’t claim that.
Many upcycling projects involve the use of new materials and sometimes chemicals (paints, glues, etc).
So while upcycling should in most cases be better for the environment than buying a completely new item, with all the embedded carbon implied in its production – we can’t claim that that is always the case.
The most environmentally friendly approach would be to use your ‘stuff’ for longer without modification, consume less so you create less waste, or to upcycle using only other existing materials that might also otherwise be thrown away.
I have lost track of the amount of times I have seen a perfectly useable or at least perfectly reparable or repurposable pieces of furniture sitting on the curbside ready to be taken to the dump.
Things get thrown away because they are broken but they also get thrown away because they don’t suit the owners tastes anymore.
There are so many ways you can update old furniture and other décor items, even if you do need to use a few supplies to do it.
The toss it and buy new approach that is seems to continue to be a trend today is definitely not environmentally friendly!
Getting in the habit of upcycling and increasing awareness of upcycling can only help us all to develop more of a waste not want not attitude.
If you can’t use it or upcycle it try finding someone else who can before you resort to throwing it away (see below for how to do this).
Money Saving Benefits
Upcycling is usually cheaper than buying something new.
It’s a bit of a no brainer this one, but if you use what you already own instead of buying something you are going to save money – aren’t you?
There has been a new surge in the popularity of thrifty or ‘frugal’ living lately and upcycling can be part of that.
If you want to be part of the ‘age of thrift’ there are lots of everyday items for the home for example that you can make re-usable versions of using upcycled materials (especially fabric or old bedding) that are not only cheaper to make yourself but also remove the need for repeated purchases of disposable versions.
It does takes more brain power and creativity to find an alternative to something you would usually buy using the materials you already own but often the finished product can turn out to be of ‘higher value’ to you even if it cost you less!
So in a way you are ‘paying’ for it with your time and energy but you will often end up with something that will last you longer and that you will enjoy more than if you bought it new without thinking first.
New products these days, even furniture, just aren’t built to last in the way they used to be. I sound like I am 105 years old when I talk like that but it is just true!
There are exceptions to the upcycling is cheaper rule of course – the exceptions that prove the rule.
Paying for someone to re-upholster a chair for you for example can sometimes be more expensive than buying a new piece of furniture.
But if you are re-upholstering a solid vintage chair versus buying a modern mass produced chair, the price comparison isn’t actually fair. And if you are willing to have a go yourself the cost savings are always there to be had.
- How to Reupholster a Dining Chair – Seat & Back
- How to Paint Velour Upholstery Fabric (Upcycled Armchair)
Mental Health Benefits
Another thing I love about upcycling is transformation.
It is truly uplifting and inspiring to see something unwanted and unloved transformed by hard work and ingenuity into something desirable again.
Upcycling helped me when I was at a low ebb by giving me somewhere to park my mental energy as well as a physical manifestation of how something with no value could be transformed and made over into something that I would be proud to show my friends and say ‘I made that’.
It’s not hard to see the parallels with your own life if you are struggling with depression, anxiety or just a general malaise. Being creative in lots of ways can help at those times, but upcycling in particular gives that added tangible example of something being reborn.
That is why I have found for me and anecdoatally from so many people that upcycling can really be a great form of self-therapy.
We are in the era of individuality as they say – who was it who said the current generation of young people are a bit of a ‘snowflake generation’? I think it was said with some degree of sarcasm originally. But with no hint of irony from me, we really are all unique and we should celebrate that.
Upcycling gives you the opportunity to make something that is truly one-of-a-kind and unique to you. You can paint something, sew something, or decoupage something so that it reflects your personality and your style to a tee.
When you buy from a shop you are limited by what business owners and manufacturer’s have determined ‘most people’ want to buy. Our tastes often learn to adapt to that and we buy the best option we can find or we don’t even know what we want before we go shopping and we are completely guided by what sellers want to sell us.
But upcycling gives you the chance to think – what is it that I really want or need for this new object? What do I need it to do? What size do I want it to be? What colour? And then work back from there to find a way to make it with the materials you have on hand.
When you make something that truly came from your own creative brain, it not only has added value because it is being saved from the waste stream, it has that added one-of-a-kind unique to you priceless quality.
This is especially true when you use upcycled materials to make gifts for your friends and family.
A homemade handmade gift is the best in my opinion.
And although you can buy lots of ‘personalised’ items new from large and small businesses, it will never be quite as personal as something you made yourself.
One of my favourite and super easy examples of this are homemade name crayons made out of old broken crayons. Gifts made from scrap fabrics or any of our upcycled gift guide ideas can all be made so super personal because you made them yourself.
Add a little ‘Made with Love’ gift tag that your recipient can keep as well and watch their face light up. ‘You made this for me?!’.
Not only will your gift be one of a kind but the person who receives it will feel like they are too – how special must you be for someone to make something for you?
- 16 DIY Christmas Gifts that they won’t know are Homemade!
- 10 DIY Personalised Gifts You Can Make From Your Upcycled Stuff!
- The Upcycler’s Guide to Gift Wrapping
- The Ultimate Guide to Upcycled Gifts on Etsy
What Materials Can you Upcycle?
We’re all used to sorting our waste into what can be recycled and what can’t, but much of what goes in the recycling bin can actually be upcycled.
And what about the rest of our refuse and unwanted objects?
Get ready to look at your waste sorting and rubbish collections in a new light, you might find you can upcycle more than you realised!
- Metal & Tin Cans
- Styrofoam & other non-biodegradable protective packaging
- Scrap Fabric & Textiles
- Bric a Brac & Broken Items
- Garden Waste
Through deliveries, moving house, or just your regular food shop, excess cardboard can really start stacking up.
Most of the time we just flatten it and pop it in the designated cardboard recycling bin.
The waste collectors then pick it up, sort through it and send it off to be baled, shredded and recycled into other cardboard and paper products.
Recycling cardboard is the easy option, but have you ever thought about upcycling cardboard boxes?
It’s strong, it’s versatile, and it’s pretty much always available, so here are some easy cardboard upcycling ideas for you to try:
- Make some bookshelves.
- Make Magazine Files
- Make fabric-covered boxes that you would never know are cardboard.
- Make a playhouse for your kids.
- Make a photo display board.
- Use it to make your own gift boxes. Also see here & here for more cardboard gift wrapping ideas.
- Make DIY Gift and Product Tags – and these tags especially for Christmas.
- Make a Halloween Trick or Treat basket to go with your child’s costume (see below).
Another fab upcycle from regular contributor Charlie Miller is this upcycled halloween trick or treat basket made from upcycled cardboard. Charlie’s family is Dr. Who obsessed so the trick or treat basket was decorated to look like the Tardis Police Box!
Glass collection recycling day has a distinct clinking sound when you get to gauge just how much your neighbours have been drinking by how loud their glass bin sounds! I’m joking – but you all know the sound of a bunch of glass breaking and smashing as it is tipped into the recycling truck.
Why not find some new uses for glass bottles, jars, and even windows before you immediately put it in the recycling bin?
- Use wine bottles and beer bottles as rustic vases or decorate them as wedding centrepieces
- Hang glass bottles as a decorative windchime
- Use an old window as a notice board/white board or add some legs and turn it into a coffee table.
- Turn mason jars into bathroom storage, money boxes, or kitchen organizers.
- Buy a glass cutter and make drinking glasses, vases, pendant lights and candle holders out of empty wine and spirit bottles.
- Melt bottles down flat and turn them into serving trays.
- Don’t stop at your wine bottles – upcycle the corks too! Try making them into centrepieces or even drawer handles!
I don’t know about you but this is the one I tend to feel the most guilty about chucking in the recycling bin.
An empty plastic bottle is the quintessential symbol of our wasteful society isn’t it?
The vase in the middle of the photo below is an upcycled plastic bubble bath bottle.
Here are some more suggestions for how to upcycle different kinds of plastic waste including those plastic bottles!
- Make an ottoman out of large soda bottles.
- Make trinket bowls out of takeaway containers.
- Upcycle plastic straws into a trendy geometric plant hanger.
- Add a zipper to a large soda bottle and make it pencil case
- Make a soft toy tidy out of nappy bin refill cassettes.
- Make a bag out of candy wrappers.
- Make a scrubber out of plastic bags.
- Make a storage basket out of plastic bags.
Below is a photo of a storage basket made from plastic carrier bags that have been woven together. It was made by one of our regular blog contributors Charlie Miller. You’d never know what it was made of would you?
Metal & Tin Cans
We all know about the abundance of tin cans in our recycling bins and there are soooo many things you can do with tin cans! Below is one I decoupaged with wallpaper as a storage container for all my scissors.
But there are other types of metal that might not immediately spring to mind as something you can upcycle. For example, copper piping, car parts, bike parts, screws, nails, the list goes on.
Sometimes the thought of upcycling metal can feel a bit daunting for a beginner, but like anything with just a few tools – and the will to have a go – you would be amazed what you can create.
Some of them are simple too – there are several uses for unneeded nuts and bolts and nails in our list of DIY Father’s Day Gifts that you don’t need specialised tools or skills to accomplish.
Here are some ideas:
- Use tin cans as upcycled planters.
- Turn a bike wheel into a clock, a table top, a laundry whirly gig, wall art or a garden ornament.
- Use copper piping to make a shoe rack, a toilet roll holder, a new railing for your wardrobe or a handle for a chest of drawers.
- Use an unwanted dish rack as hanging wall storage in your sewing room.
- Upcycle an empty metal paint can into a planter.
- Transform smaller unneeded bike or appliance parts into jewellery and earrings
- Use nuts and bolts to make a cute & fiddle friendly keychain
Below is a before and after contributed from reader Michelle, who is also a blogger herself. She turned a bicycle wheel into a Tree of Life garden decor ornament. You can find more of her projects @acraftymix.blog
You might be surprised how easy it is to end up with unwanted wood.
I also end up with large pieces of particle board and plywood from old furniture.
You can also find yourself with thin wooden crates from some grocery deliveries or even an old wooden door if you ever find you need to replace one!
There are lots of things you can do to upcycle wood – given the right tools.
- Create large scale wall art with big pieces and pallet offcuts like I did.
- Turn a door into a headboard or a table.
- Use pallets to create a mug rack , face mask organizer, or coat rack.
- Use pyrography to turn a log or other piece of wood into a useful sign or decorative object.
- Repaint old kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.
- Use reclaimed wood as the basis for any wood building project from a mud kitchen for the kids to an outdoor shed or a window seat.
- Use a log as a coffee table top.
Above is photo of an outdoor side table made by Charlie Miller – she made it using an old paint container and a slice of log she had set aside for a mushroom growing project that didn’t go as planned!
Above is a face mask organizer I made using a piece of upcycled scrap wood (from a pallet). It was super easy and it’s super useful.
Thankfully a lot of us now get electronic bank statements but somehow that doesn’t seem to cut down on the amount of junk mail, flyers and store circulars that get deposited through my letter box every day.
Newspaper, magazines, brown paper packaging filler, torn books, receipts and old coupons are just a few more examples of the kinds of paper waste we all accumulate that usually ends up in our recycling bin.
There are lots of ways we can upcycle paper thankfully, but it would take most of us our whole lives to try to upcycle it all!
Here are some ideas to start with:
- Make junk journal notebooks or colouring books out of junk mail and envelopes instead of buying blank notebooks
- Use newspaper in decoupage projects
- Reuse brown paper packaging filler (usually added to boxes to stop your purchase sliding around) as rustic kraft style gift wrapping.
- Use crumpled or torn wrapping paper in crafts for Valentine’s Day or Christmas.
- Use newspaper to line a garden path before covering it in wood chips or pebbles
- Use ripped book pages as a bouquet or make jewellery out of them.
- Use leftover wrapping paper to decorate cardboard storage units.
Below are some plastic takeaway containers decoupaged with newspaper and wrapping paper.
- How to Upcycle Takeaway Containers into Decorative Trinket Bowls
- How to Upcycle Junk Mail – Junk Journal Colouring Book
Styrofoam & other non-biodegradable protective packaging
Doesn’t your heart just sink when you open something you’ve bought only to find it is encased in styrofoam or some other type of foam packaging or pellets?
This type of packaging is often used for electronics or items for the home like faucets, shower heads and ovens.
Here are some ways to upcycle this kind of packaging:
- Use it as a base for flower arranging
- Make a Christmas Wreath
- Pack it tightly together and cover it with fabric to make foot stools or occasional seating.
- Use it to ‘insulate’ drafty areas of your home.
We all buy too much clothing. Fashion is fickle, waste bands increase and decrease, and clothes wear out, get ripped torn or stained.
Thankfully recent research suggests that 50% of those aged 25-34 choose to repair clothes instead of throwing them away when they can.
But the popularity of concepts like the capsule wardrobe or Marie Kondo’s theories about only keeping clothing that sparks joy for you would suggest that we all have a bit of a clothing hoarding problem which the fashion industry loves to feed!
I’m no different. I’ve only recently pulled down all my old jeans from the loft, admitted defeat with regards to ever fitting into them again, and finally decided to start upcycling them.
Here are some clothing upcycling ideas you can try:
- Mend kid’s clothes.
- Add applique to make an old garment new again.
- Turn an ill fitting top into a cardigan.
- Turn your old jeans into a picnic blanket, some jewellery or even a bedside organizer.
- Make a rag rug out of old t-shirts or sweaters like I did.
- Make a wall hanging, a kid’s apron, pot holders and more out of old men’s dress shirts.
- Use old clothing to make unpaper towels for your kitchen or make up remover pads.
- Use old shirts or sheets to make macrame wall hangings.
- Make a tote bag for your groceries or a leather purse out of an old pair of boots or your old jeans (see below for more denim upcycling ideas).
- Use an old sweater to line a box or a waste paper bin and turn into nursery storage like the reader project below.
There are endless ways you can upcycle clothes! Below project photos were submitted by reader Nicola Paterson who used an old cashmere sweater with holes in it and some leftover yarn to turn a bicycle basket (that had been a wedding prop) into a cute nursery storage basket.
Denim and Old Jeans obviousy fall into the clothing category above but we also just tend to end up with loads of old or torn jeans in our homes since they are such a ubiquitous clothing staple.
There are so many options for upcycling your old worn out denim jeans, jackets, skirts or shorts.
Upcycling old jeans is so popular that I ended up making an entire post about how to cut up your old jeans in order to get the most fabric out of them!
- Make a denim quilt. – I loved the first one I made with a pattern so much I also made an improv denim quilt!
- Make a large handbag out of a denim skirt.
- Use denim pockets to make a kids’ bedside organizer or a denim handbag.
- Make no sew dog toys.
- You can also make planters, wine gift bags and storage baskets out of them.
There are a number of ways to end up with scrap fabric you don’t know what to do with.
The main one – and where mine comes from is sewing.
If you quilt, sew clothing or make gifts for kids you will likely have some offcuts from your projects that you aren’t 100% sure what to do with.
Another way to end up with ‘scrap fabric’ or unwanted textiles is when you wear out or grow tired of things like sheets, towels and table cloths.
- Make scrap fabric bunting, or no sew rag bunting.
- Make fabric wrapped bangles
- Make a fabric notice board or wall hanging
- Use it to reupholster something
- Make patchwork quilt tops out of small scraps.
- Make bookmarks as gifts
- Make fabric flowers to embellish a bag or turn into a brooch.
- Use old duvet covers as backing for quilts.
- Use old pillowcases to make clothing labels.
- Wrap your clothes hangers to stop your clothing slipping off.
- Make a Fabric Baby Book for a new member of the family.
Below is a picture of my first ever quilt made with scrap fabric.
Traditional quilitng has a long history of using fabric scraps, remnants and old clothes. I’m a recent conver to the obsession that is quilting so you’ll find lots of ideas on this site for how to reduce your textile waste by making lovely comfy quilts to cuddle in and gift to your loved ones.
- Scrappy Improv Quilt Blocks
- Scrappy Disappearing Nine Patch Quilt
- Mini Quilt-as-you-go Keychain
- My First Quilt – Improv Quilt
Old broken jewellery is one of my favourite things to upcycle.
Jewellery often has a sentimental value, I even keep costume jewellery from both my Grandmothers to upcycle and reuse even though it has no real monetary value.
One of the members of our Business Directory, Shazazz Jewellery, upcycles costume jewellery as her main material.
I used to run an upcycling business myself where I upcycled broken vintage jewellery into one of a kind wedding headpieces. I keep planning to write a tutorial on that – and I will! – so check back here or email me to tell me you are super keen and it might make me write it faster!
Here are some other ideas for upcycling broken jewellery that you can’t repair:
- Use a collection of brooches as a permanent ‘flower’ arrangement or wedding bouquet
- Make a windchime out of old necklaces
- Make a DIY chandelier
- Make super opulent beaded curtains
- Make a curtain tie back
- Glue brooch or large earring fronts to flat drawer knobs for added bling
- Make Christmas ornaments
- Arrange stud back earrings on a picture backing and frame them as wall art.
Upcycling furniture is thankfully getting more and more popular and it’s even turned into successful businesses for a lot of solopreneurs like the women run small businesses in our business directory in the painted furniture section.
Furniture styles change just like clothing of course, so it’s not surprising that not everything your parents or grandparents owned will be to your taste.
The great thing about most of the furniture from generations past is that it is a lot more solid than the stuff that is sold in mass quantities in big box high street stores today.
We have a whole post on How to Flip Furniture here that links to some of our furniture makeover tutorials that are too numerous to list here.
Below is a before and after photo submitted by Alison West of Ayr Brushed who turned this dated cabinet into a super cool music cabinet.
Alison has written for us in the past and runs her own furniture painting business. You can find her @ayrbrushed.
Here are a few more ideas:
- Paint it. Go classic and refined, pink or even art deco with it. Update Ikea and flatpack furniture, mid-century modern pieces as well as proper antiques. Consider your furniture your canvas and let out your inner artist.
- Replacing the handles on an old piece of furniture can sometimes be all that is needed to make you fall back in love with it.
- Replace the handles on your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them too!
- Use decoupage, faux marble techniques and stencils to add a special pattern or design that complements the rest of your décor.
- Re-upholster a comfortable but ugly armchair.
- Paint upholstery that is in good condition but is an outdated colour. Also see here for painting fabric before re-upholstering.
- If your furniture is broken beyond repair consider using the component parts for something else:
- make a cat bed out of a drawer
- a garden bench out of the frame of a dresser or an old cot.
- How to Upcycle a Bureau into an Art Deco Drinks Cabinet
- How to Upcycle a Dressing Table: An Art Deco Style Makeover
- How to Upcycle a Vintage Buffet – Graphite & Gold
- How to Upcycle a Chest of Drawers – the ‘Pink Lady’
Below is another before and after furniture makeover from one of our business directory members, Hilary Kappel of The Upcycle Fairy.
She turned a standard dresser into a fabulous kitchen island! You can find her @theupcyclefairy
Bric a Brac & Broken Objects
When I talk about bric a brac I use it to mean things like crockery, unused kitchen accessories, lamps, vases, decorative objects, picture frames and other bits and pieces that you might see on the shelves of a thrift or charity shop or that accumulate in your attic or loft.
Basically it is just ‘stuff’ either broken or out of style that we inherit or buy (and regret later!) that doesn’t fit into any of the categories I’ve mentioned before.
For example, I spray painted this plastic pineapple nightlight and made it into a copper décor accessory. Pretty functionless – both before and after – but I like it much better now!
Here are some other ideas for what to do with your bric a brac:
- Paint or decoupage an old lamp to bring it in line with your current tastes
- Use an old cheese grater to hang earrings on when you aren’t wearing them.
- Use old cookie cutters or spoons as coat hooks.
- Turn the lenses from a broken pair of eyeglasses into a fun brooch.
- Decoupage a serving tray as wall art.
- Hang mismatched plates as a wall gallery.
- Update an old picture frame and mount with craft paint.
- Use broken toys or old pots and pans as planters in your garden.
- Turn a broken football/soccerball into a purse.
- Use leftover tiles as wall art
- Use a cracked mug as a cute succulent planter.
- 11 Fabulous Upcycling Projects using Copper Spray Paint
- 47 Upcycled Planter Ideas that are Easy to Make
Those of us with gardens and potted plants know all too well that maintenance is a year-round task.
From mowing the lawn and trimming trees, to pruning plants and sweeping up leaves – there’s loads to do, and loads of rubbish too.
‘Upcycling’ your garden waste probably isn’t the first thing you would think of but there are some things you can try.
For starters, you can carve out a compost area in your garden and put all your green waste there instead of sending it off in your garden waste bin.
The composting of waste at home does take a while though, so be patient with it and keep turning it to speed up the process.
Composting probably isn’t technically ‘upcycling’, as it is a process of changing the composition of your waste but it’s a pretty low intervention one that can be done at home – and if you are patient you will end up with cost free soil full of rich nutrients for your garden.
Other ways to upcycle branches and other garden waste include:
- wreaths and other rustic decorations at Christmas,
- centrepieces at weddings and parties, or even in the garden as border edging.
- I often use sticks to hang things like this wall hanging or this one.
- You can press leaves and flowers in book pages and use them to make bookmarks or wall art.
Below is a piece of wall art I made with some sentimental leaves my Grandmother collected over the years.
What have we left out? If there are any materials you can upcycle that we haven’t included on our list I would love to hear from you so we can update this article! Just leave a comment below.
Where to find materials to Upcycle
Most of us have a hard enough time reusing and upcycling the unwanted objects and rubbish in our own homes. But sometimes you might want or need something specific for your home and you don’t have the right thing to upcycle yourself to make it happen.
So if you don’t want to buy new, and you are looking for places where you can buy or obtain other people’s unwanted items, then there are some starting places below.
- Friends and Family with lots of stuff and no time or inclination to upcycle will often be more than happy to give you their unwanted things – including furniture and clothing!
- Sites like Gumtree, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and Friday Ad are full of listings of people looking to get rid of used items. Usually you can pick things up cheaply and there are usually some listings of items for free as well. Particularly things like pallets and garden rubble (stones etc) can usually be picked up for free if you have the transportation to go pick it up.
- Ebay is a great source of secondhand clothing, scrap fabric and bric a brac items. I shop on ebay often for scrap fabric, secondhand denim, unfinished patchwork and old duvet covers for quilting with. You can check out all my Ebay Hauls here.
- Local charity shops and thrift stores will have a whole range of things depending on their size. Some focus on furniture, some on clothing and books and others on bric a brac and kitchenallia.
- If you are looking for an ongoing source of raw material for a small business, have a think about what would be useful to you and work backwards to what kind of business uses that material in their production process. Then think about getting in touch with some local businesses to see if they would give you their waste or sell it to you cheaply. In the UK businesses pay for waste collection, so if there is something you can offload for a business they might be more than happy to let you take it.
What to do with things you can’t upcycle yourself
So what do you do when you’ve run out of time and energy to upcycle everything you would like to? Where can you direct it that will be less harmful than sending it to landfill?
The list above of where to buy items to upcycle are generally the same places you might think of going to offload items that could be upcycled but there are a few more to add as well:
- Ask friends and family if they need anything you are getting rid of.
- Sell or giveaway items on online classified sites.
- Get in the habit of selling your unwanted items on Ebay to make some money at the same time.
- If you have furniture to offload consider looking locally for a furniture painter who might be on the look out for new pieces to transform.
- While there are no household collections for clothing, you can recycle clothes at places other than charity shops. A lot of supermarkets have textile recycling bins in their car parks. Some shops even take unwanted garments – H&M Clothing Recycling has been in place since 2013 and you get a voucher for your trouble too! After you’ve donated, the clothes get picked up, sorted and sent out to charity shops and countries in need. The unsuitable items get sent to facilities who use recycled fabric to make microfiber cloths and cleaning rags, so nothing goes to waste.
- If you have unwanted tools – like sewing machines, jigsaws, or sanders there are charities like Workaid that will give these items to people in need to start their own businesses.
Help us Spread the word about Upcycling!
We want to get more and more people excited and interested in upcycling. Because it’s fun, it’s good for the environment and there are so many benefits to keeping yourself creative.
I hope this article has been useful for you and that it will help you to start reusing and upcycling things you didn’t even think you could.
If you are a life long committed upcycler and this is all old hat to you, consider sharing the word about upcycling with someone in your life who hasn’t caught the upcycling bug yet – lets be part of the rebirth of upcycling!
Why do I call it a bug? Because upcycling is addictive too – once you start you’ll find you just can’t stop!
Here are a few ways you can get involved in sharing:
- Share this article on social media or in a direct message to the person you think needs to see it.
- Share your own upcycling projects regularly on your social media or join our Facebook Group Upcycle My Stuff – Share My Stuff. If you share on Instagram don’t forget to tag us @upcyclemystuff so we can like and comment on your post!
- Submit a project – we are always on the look out for informative and useful upcycling tutorials.
- Make a point of making or buying upcycled gifts for birthdays and holidays and using those occasions as a subtle way of normalising upcycling and reuse for gifts. If you aren’t sure where to start you can check out these guides: DIY Personalised Gift Ideas, Mother’s Day Gifts, Valentine’s Day Gifts, Ultimate Guide to Upcycled Gifts on Etsy, 31 Books about Upcycling.
- When you do shop for something ‘new’ have a look at local craft fairs and shops or online marketplaces like Etsy, Folksy and Amazon Handmade to see if there is an upcycled alternative that someone else has made from a waste product.
Catch them with Kindness!
One thing I would like to say in closing is that the old adage that you ‘catch more bees with honey’ remains true.
In order to spread the word about upcyling, reuse, repurposing and reducing waste, I personally believe we have to meet people where they are.
And where we are as a society is a place where we are used to readily available replacements when things stop working or become unfashionable. It is also a place where we are used to having our appetite for the visually appealing sated.
I don’t think there is any benefit in making someone feel bad about their current consumption or waste disposal practices. It just makes people disengage and it won’t make anyone want to listen to us.
So when you spread the word – do be kind! Reuse and upcycling doesn’t come naturally to everyone!
None of us are perfect (I’m most certainly not!) and I don’t pretend to think a humble blog like Upcycle My Stuff alone can move the needle on these huge societal issues.
What I do think we can play a role in is subtly changing minds about what can be reused, what creativity looks like, and maybe adding a bit more ‘made from old chic’ into the collective mindset.
If we can help people upcycle even just a little bit more than they used to that can only be a good thing.
We aren’t here to judge – I am definetly an over-consumer too! What I hope is that we can make it easier for you to come up with new ways to turn your trash to treasure and that you will be inspired to share what you’ve created and that that in turn will inspire others.
If you liked this post and you want to come back and refer to it later, don’t forget to pin it!