6 Creative Ways to Upcycle Trash into Treasure

If you’re not familiar with the term “upcycle,” it means to turn something used into something better. So not just reusing or recycling, but adding value. I love to upcycle because it gives me a creative outlet with a high cost-benefit ratio. I don’t have to invest much, except maybe time, so I don’t waste expensive materials if the project doesn’t turn out as I hoped. (This is often the case because while I have lots of enthusiasm, I’m deficient in both skill and patience). Upcycling is my kind of stress-free creativity. Here are 6 ideas to get you going.

Tip # 165: Find purpose in repurposing

Before you poo-poo turning “trash into treasure” as child’s play, let me emphasize that upcycling is actually a meaningful activity. Finding creative and useful ways to reduce waste takes critical and creative thinking. It helps the planet and future generations. It can benefit others, and you can use it to learn and grow yourself. Maybe you just upcycle for yourself or your family. Or maybe you are turning it into a more far-reaching project or profession that has a larger impact. Either way, it pays to find purpose in repurposing.

Tip # 166: Get creative with recycling

With a child who likes art, every bit of trash holds creative potential. I save cardboard, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, straws, popsicle sticks, and much more for craft projects. For project ideas, I Google “what to make with X,” or even better, I just hand the thing to my daughter and let her imagination go wild. It’s a joy to see her eyes light up in anticipation. I shudder to think about how much money we could have spent on craft materials over the years, and I smile knowing how creative my daughter has become by turning trash into treasure. And while most of this may end up in a landfill anyway, at least I’ve kept it in circulation a little while longer and squeezed out a whole lot of goodness in the process.

Tip # 167: Give upcycle gifts

I especially love to upcycle for teacher gifts. My daughter had 17 elementary school teachers at any given time. (This includes all of her enrichment and specialty classes like PE, music, gardening, language, etc.) So even a $10 gift card for each was sometimes a stretch. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think teachers appreciate a handmade gift more than another coffee mug. Last year my daughter and I made votive candleholders out of jam jars. We painted glue on the inside, dusted them with iridescent glitter, and voila! We also stenciled some lunch bags we had left over from another craft to put them in. My only regret is that we didn’t save one for ourselves!

Tip # 168: Make art from found objects

Remember how the reuse ethic applies to other people’s trash? Well sometimes you can find things like tile, fabric, or metal scraps that you can upcycle into art, like mosaics or mobiles. When you’re out for walks around your neighborhood, just keep an eye out for “shiny objects “:)

For me, this is a brilliant way to make something truly inspired and original. For example, when my daughter, Märta was young, we found a 2-foot high 3-dimensional metal letter M in someone’s trash, so of course we had to bring it home. We painted it and then covered it with colorful 1-inch polka dots we punched out of all her preschool and kindergarten artwork. 6 years later, it’s still hanging on her wall! We are both so proud of that creation 🙂

Tip # 169: Learn new circular skills

The main reason we want to upcycle (or recycle, reuse, repair, etc) is to keep goods in circulation as long as possible. The ultimate goal is a circular economy, or a closed-loop system (more on that in the next post). But that sort of transformation requires coordinated effort from government, industry, business – far beyond the reach of our individual household upcycle efforts. But don’t let the scope of the problem dissuade you from getting boosting your own wellbeing through upcycling!

Instead of saying “I don’t know how to” or “I don’t have the skills to” remake/remodel/repurpose/refurbish/restore/repair, treat it as an opportunity to learn a new “circular” skill! For many epicycle tasks, a Youtube tutorial is all you need. But why not go a step further? You could develop a new skill like woodworking or welding. Imagine how good that sense of accomplishment will feel!

Tip # 170: Live like a homesteader

If you’ve made some progress on reusing, repairing, and re/upcycling, you might be ready to embrace the modern homesteader lifestyle. Being a modern homesteader is certainly a different experience from when my Great-Grandma Bonnet vanquished rattlesnakes with a broom on her Montana homestead. For one thing, you can no longer get your land for free (the government used to give up to 166 acres to individuals willing to settle out west and work the land for five years—that ended in 1976). Second, the homesteader’s self-sufficient lifestyle is no longer a necessity—it’s more often chosen by individuals who are tired of the harried and materialistic modern culture. And finally, modern homesteaders have the benefit of all our modern conveniences—washing machines, pressure cookers, and the like—that make self-sufficiency easier and more enjoyable. 

Other than that, the core philosophy is the same: Live well with the resources you have. 

In fact, modern homesteaders don’t even need what might be considered the foundational resource: land. To be an apartment homesteader, Jill Winger of the Prairie Homestead offers ten ideas to get started.  Most of these have to do with making or doing things yourself that you might otherwise pay for. Winger says that learning how to be a DIYer has been one of her favorite parts of the homesteading lifestyle, and she points to the brilliance of old-time homesteaders, who creatively repurposed everyday things that we now commonly cast off. It seems like our most valuable resource is our ability to think critically and creatively and to learn.

Next Week…

To make greater headway in waste reduction, we need to turn our attention outward. So we’ll consider 5 ways to make our whole society more sustainable.

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