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From Trash to Treasure: Upcycling

Photo by Thomas Zigahn for The Circular

Just imagine a truck that circumnavigates the globe 24 times. – That’s precisely the amount of waste we produce every year.

In total, we dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste, and this is only partly because 99 percent of the stuff we buy is trashed within 6 months. Our garbage per person per day has increased from 2.68 pounds to a massive 4.51 pounds in the last 50 years. But the world counts, that is why we have to do something about it.

Can you imagine riding a bicycle made from 650 recycled aluminum cans? – Because this is the amount of cans you need to recycle to have enough material for a new bicycle.

When unusable things are turned into something new and imaginative with a lot of creativity, this is called upcycling. Upcycling is nothing new in countries where resources are scarce. It is part of everyday life to economize on what you have. Nothing is simply thrown away. And that’s exactly where upcycling comes in: We should all rethink and carefully consider what actually ends up in our rubbish bin.

The difference between upcycling and recycling is simple: the quality of the supposed “rubbish” is upgraded instead of downgraded. In addition, 100% of the existing material is reused. Recycling is often referred to as downcycling because the raw materials lose value. It also requires a lot of energy, and large machines are needed for recycling, which again pollutes our environment. Upcycling, on the other hand, involves a lot of manual labor. But the good thing is that everyone can do something!

Thomas Zigahn runs the upcycling workshop “Tanz auf Ruinen” (Dance on Ruins) in Dortmund, Germany. Together with a few colleagues, he is constantly working on new ideas and also organizes workshops in which he collaborates with customers on their ideas.

Thomas sees it as his job to reuse the material as much as possible: “We want to give people ideas and show them what is possible,” says Thomas. “Many materials still have their value after their actual use and are often underestimated. I even wear a belt made from an old bicycle tire, all homemade, so I haven’t had to buy a new belt in the last five years.”

Sometimes upcycling goes beyond your own household waste: not everything has to be used to be upcycled. New products that cannot fulfill their own purpose due to defects are also given a second chance: “We recently received airbags with a small defect. Of course, they can no longer be installed in a car, but they are brand new – and would normally be disposed of. We found out that they are waterproof. So I immediately had the idea of making rain capes from them,” says Thomas Zigahn happily. In this short documentary he is rethinking: he tries to avoid waste through upcycling by turning old bicycle tires into belts.

The fascinating thing about upcycling is that the possibilities are endless. The big difficulty is the preparatory work. Normally, the material is selected to match the product. With upcycling, it’s the other way round. The artists work with supposed waste and need a lot of imagination to really make something practical out of it.

This is also the standard they set for themselves: “We would never sell something that is totally pointless and useless and also looks crappy just because it supports a good cause. It’s very important to us that our products are cool and useful. The good happens on the side, and sustainability is included, so to speak,” emphasises his colleague, who is currently packing the treasures into boxes to present them at the next trade fair.

Whether upcycling or recycling, both pursue the same goal: to combat our throwaway society. Of course, everyone has to decide for themselves whether to buy a cheap mass-produced laptop bag or perhaps a recycled product that conserves our resources, is sustainable, and also has a story to tell.

In his workshops, he explains, for example, how to turn a discarded pair of jeans into a bag or how to turn an empty cereal box into an Easter nest. The focus is on everything that we label as waste in everyday life. From vinyl records to key trays, purses made from milk cartons, or jewelry made from old cutlery, he never runs out of ideas.

One thing is clear: The trend is shifting towards increased awareness of sustainability. Our society is undergoing a rethinking process, and perhaps people will soon reconsider before discarding items. Maybe you will try to donate your old things. You can do this directly to Thomas Zigahn, accompanied by a short message in the contact form, or to other independent artists. You can easily find some artists in your own city with a quick Google search. I am sure that they can transform your ‘trash’ into something valuable, or perhaps we’ll unleash our own creativity to create, for example:

  1. Cereal Box into an Organiser: To turn a cereal box into a desk organizer, cut the box into sections of varying heights, creating compartments. Cover each section with colorful paper or fabric to enhance its appearance. Arrange the sections within the box to your liking, providing an organized space for pens, pencils, and other office supplies.
  1. Vinyl Records into Wall Art or a bowl: Upcycling old vinyl records into wall art involves painting or decorating the records in a way that complements your aesthetic. Hang them on your wall in an artful arrangement to give a nostalgic and visually striking touch to your living space. Or you can create unique bowls by heating them with a hairdryer and molding the into the desired shape. The cardboard in which the records are wrapped can also be cut into smaller pieces and used as postcards.
  1. Mason Jar Planters: For mason jar planters, paint or decorate the jars according to your style. Fill them with soil and plant small herbs or flowers. These planters can be placed on windowsills, adding a touch of greenery to your home.

All of these ideas are very special and not only turn the old material into something functional that can also be used in your home, but it also serves as an eye-catcher for your guests. If you have something bigger and heavier, such as old furniture, you can simply add handles or paint it.

Alternatively, you can search for a workshop where professional people can help you, like the Irish Rediscovery Centre based in Dublin. It is one of the leading organizations in the upcycling space, with a forward-thinking business to help people reuse their old stuff and gain a better understanding of their rubbish. The company is dedicated to encouraging resource efficiency, waste reduction, and sustainability.

With a mission to inspire and educate, the Rediscovery Centre offers a variety of workshops and initiatives aimed at encouraging individuals to reimagine their relationship with discarded materials. From furniture to everyday items, the center provides hands-on workshops that empower participants to transform their possessions into something new and valuable. The importance of upcycling lies in its contribution to a circular economy, minimizing waste, and fostering a mindset of reuse.

Through  with the Rediscovery Center through their website or on Instagram, people can take a creative and environmentally friendly journey, turning old furniture into unique pieces that are good for the environment. For those looking to engage in upcycling with the Rediscovery Centre, workshops and resources are readily available to guide and inspire the transformation of items that might otherwise end up in landfills. it seems more difficult than it actually is to do something for the environment.

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