Upcycling takes recycling a step further, and local businesses and artisans are jumping on the bandwagon.
By Wendy Underhill
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Upcycle. Most of us are familiar with the first three words, but what the heck is upcycling?
“Upcycling” is the newest anti-landfill term that means creating something new from a discarded object or material, without first breaking it down to its elemental state. An upcycled glass bottle, for instance, isn’t melted down and recast as a new bottle; instead, it’s cut and re-created as a tumbler or vase.
On the ecological food chain, upcycling is a step up from recycling. While recycling a bottle is economically and environmentally better than burying it in a landfill, it’s also energy-intensive in a way that upcycling is not.
BottleHood Colorado is a Boulder-based business that upcycles bottles. Owner Rachel Cohen modeled her company after the original BottleHood in San Diego, Calif., which she visited after graduating from the University of Colorado in 2009. One look at the green business and she knew “this is exactly what I want to be doing. It’s an amazing thing to turn trash into jobs.”
Cohen launched her business in Boulder on Sept. 1, 2010, and is already expanding it to include jewelry, votives, lamps and sconces—all made from cast-off bottles.
BottleHood’s wares are sold at several local stores, including Old Friends in Louisville, where owner Wendy Atkin says BottleHood’s display “attracts tons of people. It is so cool because everybody’s into recycling, and Rachel takes it one step further, so we can use the bottles again and again and again.”
Cohen’s company collects bottles from local bars and restaurants, but some are hard to get, so BottleHood pays up to $1 for favored bottles, such as Grey Goose vodka, Belvedere vodka and Bombay Sapphire gin.
“I truly believe this is the future of glassware in the world,” Cohen says, noting that BottleHood’s slogan is “reclaim, repurpose, reuse.”
But back to upcycling. Maybe it’s just a fancy new word for an old concept—crafting. Former hippies remember that turning glass bottles into drink glasses was popular in the 1960s (along with making macramé plant hangers and sand candles). Going back even further, discards have been turned into usable household items forever; think of the braided rugs, quilts and even feather beds now displayed in history museums.
Purists might see global folk art as upcycling, too. When Haitians or Africans turn paper into beads or tin cans into toys, is it crafting or is it upcycling?
Motivation may be part of the answer. Upcyclers are motivated to keep waste out of landfills, and they do it through creativity and entrepreneurism. Folk artists are motivated to express themselves and make a living, and they do it with whatever materials are at hand.
Not Ugly, Expensive or Fragile
Parsing the language of reuse is something Andrew Sell, who lives along the Jersey Shore, does in detail. He’s starting an online business called Hipcycle (hipcycle.com/what-is-upcycling) that will soon begin to sell upcycled products created in many locations, including Boulder County. Sell says Boulder, Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y., are the country’s upcycling hotbeds.
But he says he plans to meet the needs of all consumers—not just “green” consumers. “Usually we’ve given up something to go green,” Sell says. “With Hipcycle, I’m trying to put together green products that are not ugly, not more expensive, and not more fragile.” While he applauds any efforts that reduce landfill loads, he’s not planning on selling novelty items such as found-art statuary. He’s more interested in furniture, housewares and utilitarian garden products, like planters.
So is Boulder’s Reclaimed Creations. Craftsman/owner Kenny Johnson began upcycling while living in Washington, D.C., where he experimented with making furniture out of scrap wood. When he moved to Boulder, he dived into it professionally. “For what I’m doing, Boulder is probably the best fit, because people are conscious of the environment,” he says.
Johnson scouts construction sites and ReSource—Boulder’s reclaimed building materials yard—looking for wood, “which is just as fun as building the actual project,” he says. “This wood is something you can’t buy in a store; it could be warped, it could have knotholes. It creates a look I just love.” He adds, “As a positive or a negative, every [furniture] piece is one of a kind.”
Then there’s Moe Sherman of Westminster, who upcycles plastic newspaper bags into brightly colored place mats, table runners, coasters and rugs. Sherman is a weaver, so it was a simple creative leap to realize all those newspaper bags could become fibers. When his local grocery store stopped accepting bags for recycling, Sherman’s “ECOMATS” business was born. “Each place mat removes about 17 newspaper bags from a landfill,” he says, and ECOMATS are casual, easy to clean and extremely durable.
Stylistically, upcycling doesn’t have a codified esthetic. Johnson’s furniture is rustic, Sherman’s place mats are colorful, and Cohen’s jewelry is evocative. Instead of a shared esthetic, these upcyclers are linked by a shared ethic: the 21st century’s shorthand for the 20th-century phrase “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”