June 11 2012
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One man’s trash in another man’s city

Upcycling has a reputation problem, our ID intern David explores the world of reuse and finds out how urban materials are more valuable than you think.

Upcycle (verb) definition: reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. In other words taking something you’re about to throw away and turning it into something you want to keep. All sound a bit hippie-ish? The fact is upcycling is a much greener version of recycling. By cutting transport distances and CO2 emissions during manufacture as well as eliminating waste sent to landfill, upcycling projects have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases faster and more easily.

Upcycling differs from recycling which in most cases can be described as ‘down-cycling’ due to the process reducing or downgrading the quality of the material. Examples can be as small as Ariane Prin’s pencils made from the Royal College of Art’s waste or as big and useful as artificial reefs made from 600 decommissioned subway trains.

Featured image: Ariane Prin upcycled pencils made from the Royal college of Art’s waste

Throwing New York subway cars into the sea to make upcycled artificial reefs. Image credit:

So who’s doing it? There are currently a few start-up companies formed solely on the idea of upcycling – TerraCycle set up with the vision to completely eliminate waste. They take non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste and turn it into a variety of products like the M&M’s bag pictured here. Some of the more eco conscious larger companies are also getting involved with these kinds of schemes, as they make good marketing sense and are cheaper than conventional recycling. But in reality, most upcycling projects are still ‘cute’, little things like plant pots or paperweights and are undertaken at home by eco-living enthusiasts.

TerraCycle upcycled bag made from finished M&M’s packets. Image credit:George W Chevalier, Wikipedia Commons 

As a result, upcycling has suffered a bit of a bad rep as a housewife’s pastime, like crocheting or making candles. These hobbies are lost to the world of housewifery forever but it’s not too late for upcycling as groups of young entrepreneurial types are starting to embrace it as a greener way to think about design.

And it’s these entrepreneurial types that interest us the most. In specific, the ones who have their aims set high. An abandoned train terminal in the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the location for an ambitious upcycling redevelopment plan. LowLine hopes to become the world’s first underground park, utilising fiber-optics to concentrate sunlight and reflect it below ground. The site was built in 1903 and is now 1.5 acres of damp, rusting mess. The plan is to convert it into a public space with farmers’ markets, food stalls, live concerts and other fun stuff. It will become somewhere people can escape the fast paced life up above… and it doesn’t rain!

Current state of Delancey train terminal, the proposed sight for LowLine. Image credit:

LowLine concept render. Image credit:

Another great upcycling project goes by the name of Reclaimed Cleveland. These guys are dedicated to preserving the history of their city while at the same time dragging it into the 21st century. There are approximately 15,000 abandoned buildings across Cleveland, which equal millions of tons of material. Their website shows all the beautiful products they are able to turn this salvaged material into and each is stamped with the address of the property that it’s built from. How cool is that?! There are similar projects popping up here and there but the time when upcycling becomes the standard go-to method is some way off.

St Catherine’s Catholic Church, one of Reclaimed Cleveland’s many salvaged sites. Image credit:

Reclaimed Cleveland – Upcycled candle holders. Image

Just imagine the potential of this type of thinking. How many abandoned old buildings do you see on your journeys? How many times have you thought to yourself “why aren’t they doing something with that?” – Upcycling could change the way we think about urban regeneration forever and in the process maybe even help save the planet from impending doom. It’s also a great way for companies to be green and cut costs over standard recycling.

So the next time you’re designing something, consider the benefits of upcycling and use something people don’t want, to create something they do.

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Posted by PDD

Languages spoken: Global.
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
My dream project: A project that makes a difference in the world.
My obsession: Develop successful, award-winning and world-first products and experiences.