Recycling or Upcycling

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms

Upcycled sweater “dress” Kara helped me make from thrift store finds.  Photo by Steve Barnes.

I grew up learning the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” for making an environmental impact in the home.  We carefully cleaned and sorted glass, aluminum, plastics of certain numbers, and saved up paper and cardboard so it could magically have a new life beyond our home.  As a kid, we still had to take the labels off all the jars too!  It’s certainly much simpler to recycle most consumer products today…except Styrofoam, no one seems to know how to reuse that one yet.

Because of products like Styrofoam (which will still be kicking around millennia from now), another item was added to the mantra—refuse.  Not only could you reduce your waste, reuse items more than once, and recycle others, but you could purposefully “refuse” to purchase items that couldn’t be reused or recycled. 

At Farmstead, all our takeout containers are either made from pressed sugarcane pulp (which easily composts) or post-consumer recycled plastic (which can be recycled again), which means no Styrofoam.  We simply refuse to buy it and stock it.  The more people who refuse to buy environmentally non-friendly products, the less market demand that product will have, and eventually companies will respond by producing less of it.  Why make it if people won’t buy it!

Upcycling Trend

But there is yet even another trendy term being added to the growing list of things you can do to make a difference.  It doesn’t start with “re” though.  The new word of the day is “upcycle.”  In its verb form, upcycling means taking something that is no longer wanted in its original form and transforming it into something new and useful.  It’s distinct from “reuse” in that it changes form, but it’s not the whole energy-intense process that plastics or paper undergoes in order to be “recycled.”

Here’s a literary example.  Scarlet O’Hara needs a new gown, but the post-war economy is in a horrible state and she had no money.  Instead, she upcycles her curtains to make a lovely ball gown.  Velvet is still velvet—whether or not it came straight off a bolt or was a curtain for a while in between.  She still had to cut and sew the fabric to make the gown, but it was already a “post-consumer” product and something she had on hand.

Another interesting upcycling trend in our current time period is to take unwanted sweaters (thrift stores usually have plenty on hand) and turn them into new and interesting creations.  This might be patchwork handbags, fun hats, stuffed doggie beds, or any number of things.  If you cut out all the seams in the sweater, you’re left with pieces of knitted fabric of varying shapes and sizes (sleeves, fronts, backs).  These pieces can even be used to make new and creative clothing.

On average, Americans throw away 80 pounds of clothing a year per person.  That does not include clothing donated to thrift stores either!  I certainly don’t fit that number (you know farm families, it’s tough to throw anything away, even when it’s worn out), so someone out there is making up for my trickle of holy jeans and exhausted socks.  But still, considering those figures, in 10 years, that’s 800 pounds of clothing for one person!  That’s a bit crazy.

With upcycling, some of those throw-away clothes are intercepted and don’t end up in the landfill.  Kara’s been especially interested in the upcycled sweater project, resurrecting Grandma’s serger sewing machine.  She’s been making hats, coats, hooded capes, and even a fairy-like performance costume I wore at our St. Patty’s dinner and concert. 

“Red Riding Hood,” a red shoulder cape with hood and black trim recently sold in the shop (made from pieces of seven sweaters), and she just recently finished a children’s version in blues and teals.  The creations are fun and spontaneous, whimsical, and comfortable because the knitted fabrics retain their sweatery comfort and stretchiness.

Upcycling can take many forms—whatever turns something that has served its original purpose into something else with a whole new purpose is part of the upcycling movement. 

Great Grandma would take all her leftover scraps from making the family clothes and cut them into geometric pieces to make quilts, which is upcycling.  She could have bought new fabric to make those quilts, but she was old-fashioned thrifty and didn’t want to see those fabric scraps going to waste.

When I teach my wreathmaking classes, we start by re-bending two wire coat-hangers to form the base of the wreath, which is upcycling.  Yes, I could buy special-made wreath bases with fancy crimp and a special hanging clip, but the coat-hangers are readily available and help to empower students to realize that they have all the materials they need to do this on their own at home.

Needle felted journal cover with antique lace and cast-off jewelry. 

My latest project is making journal covers using my new needle felting skills.  Starting with a base of scrap polar fleece (left over from sewing projects, like Great Grandma’s quilt fabrics) and quilt batting, I’m also layer on bits of antique lace, cast-off jewelry, old buttons, beads, and ribbon.  The creations are unique, fun to make, and texturally rich in your hands.  Hopefully these journals will find their way into the hands of writers who will also enjoy these textures and layerings as old objects find new, creative life.

 You may already be upcycling and don’t even know it!  So don’t feel bad if you have that stash of “can’t throw it away” stuff—find a way to upcycle it.  Be creative, invent something new with these old bits, and see how their stories and memories live on in a new form.  You just might catch the upcycling bug.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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