The time for climate action is now. If our whole world does not start to make some immediate changes, then the whole planet could be doomed. People, organizations, and even companies have started to recognize the need to make smarter choices for Mother Earth and have started to recycle and even upcycle a lot of harmful products. What’s the difference, you ask? Recycling is processing the product back into the same item, while upcycling is creating something new from that product. Check out some of the incredible ways that people and communities have upcycled unique materials!
Guatemalan Bottle Schools
How do you upcycle 2 full tons of non-recyclable trash and plastic bottles? You make them into a school! A non-profit called Hug it Forward in Guatemala is helping the community build schools using trash. They have built over 120 so far. They pack each bottle full of plastic trash until it’s so stuffed that it’s hard, then use the hard bottles as the inside of each concrete wall. It becomes eco-friendly insulation! Each school uses around 6500 bottles of trash. Developing countries like Guatemala have poor education systems and no recycling services in many areas. Lots of these countries have been polluted beyond recognition. By creating schools from the bottles and plastic garbage, it solves two problems at once.
A lesser known environment-killer than plastic is denim. A single pair of jeans requires almost 4,000 liters of water to produce. Much of this water is used to pre-wash the jeans to get extra dyes out. This water full of toxic dyes is released into the environment where rivers run blue near denim production plants. This harm to the Earth does not even include the massive amounts of energy and other toxic chemicals used in the process. Bottom line–upcycle denim as much as possible! Some awesome upcycling ideas out there include this cute basket, pencil pouches, potholders, and more!
There may come a time when you find yourself with an old, broken ladder that is no longer safe to use. Before you go throwing it to the curb, upcycle it! An old wooden ladder makes a perfect trellis for climbing plants, like cucumbers, squash, beans, and peas. Mother Earth gives a double seal of approval for reusing items to plant your own food. Eventually, the wood will decay into the soil and complete the full cycle, while nurturing your plants, garden bugs, and you! If you’re not in need of trellises any time soon, that ladder could become a shelf or blanket holder, too.
You might not think to upcycle a yoga mat, but they make super cute DIY mouse pads. They are even reversible. Everyone loves something that is both functional and fashionable. Yoga mats are most commonly made from PVC, and include phthalates, lead, and cadmium, which are all harmful to the environment. When a yoga mat is thrown away, it will sit in a landfill and never biodegrade, and continue to release these chemicals into the Earth. So, when it comes time to get rid of your old yoga mat, upcycle it into something new and insanely useful.
Did you know that you should never recycle a garden hose? Garden hoses rank in the top five most problematic contaminants and the third most expensive contaminant to a recycling facility. This is because they are a “tangler,” which means they muck up the system by getting all tangled up in other materials and equipment. The good news is that they can be upcycled into some beautiful outdoor decor, like this lighted wreath. This impressive piece is sure to spark joy to all who see it hanging in your yard or garden.
One of the most common household items made of single-use plastic is the milk jug in your fridge. There are so many wonderful things that these can be upcycled into to give them infinite use, like this simple watering can! Milk jugs are just the right size to hold enough water to cover a decent sized garden bed and they have a handle to make them easy to carry. They can even be made into lots of other handy things, too. The plastic is sturdy, but easy enough to cut or puncture to shape into anything you might need, like bird feeders, scoops, piggy banks, or desk caddies.
If you are like most of America, you have a plastic bag full of other plastic bags stashed somewhere in your home. They make great little trash can liners or doggy mess bags for walking your furry friend. If you, like me, still find yourself with more bags than you can use, you can upcycle them into some really impressive items, like this woven plastic rug! The genius idea to weave the plastic together can be extended to making a myriad of other items like purses, baskets, and jump ropes. These plastic bags do not biodegrade and will live in the environment for 400 years, which is a bad thing when it’s sitting in our oceans, but a valuable feature when it’s an outdoor rug that won’t start to rot.
Many playgrounds across the country have used old tires to create rubber play spaces. Some playgrounds even use upcycled rubber as the entire surface of the area, like the ones made by No Fault Surfaces. They use waste rubber from old tires that can’t be recycled into new tires and they turn it into safe, padded playground surfaces. These surfaces protect children from getting hurt in falls and do not have small pieces like mulch that children could swallow. The remanufacturing of the rubber uses very little heat and water, making it a relatively energy-efficient process. Mother Nature and children are better off because of this initiative.
One of the most versatile things you could upcycle is a pallet. Pallets have been turned into an infinite number of furniture items and even into sheds and homes. Just look at this simple, yet impressive, kitchen bar cart! Any level of upcycler can find a pallet project to suit their ability, style, and needs. Though wood breaks down in the environment and does not pose a big impact on its own, the harvesting of timber for pallets does make a difference for Mother Earth. Some ways that you can help keep trees rooted in the ground are upcycling wood products and look for paper and wood products with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) logo to know you’re buying items that are being sustainably sourced.
Schools and communities across the nation have come together to join in a program that allows them to upcycle bottle caps into benches, often using these benches as “buddy benches” where kids can sit when they feel left out and want a new friend to approach them. Normally, bottle caps cannot be recycled with the bottle. They are made of a different plastic and are taxing on the recycling centers who require additional resources to separate the bottle and cap before processing. This bench program gives those wasted plastic bottle caps a way to stay out of recycling centers and have a new and purposeful life.
What if we recycled entire houses? The Collage House in Mumbai uses parts from old, demolished buildings to make up the entire luxurious abode. The home uses solar panels atop the terrace for power and collects rainwater in metal drain pipes. The rainwater is used in the toilets as well as to water the courtyard. The exterior of the home features a window wall made up of reused doors and windows artistically placed at different angles to emphasize the “collage” look. If a home can look this modern and beautiful and be so eco-friendly and sustainable, why is it not the norm in our world yet?!
Just about anything can be upcycled into something new, including church stained glass windows. Artists in London used old church stained glass to create a stunning greenhouse. They pieced the images together in unique ways to create hybrid creatures on display covering the greenhouse walls and roof. The colorful opaque art is probably not quite as efficient at keeping plants warm and letting as much sunlight in as regular greenhouse walls, but it is certainly prettier and a quirkier way to reuse old materials.
Using old shipping containers to build sleek-looking, cheap homes has become a little bit of an alternative lifestyle fad in recent years. Container homes come in all shapes and sizes and save thousands of shipping containers from ending up in landfills each year. The homes have all the amenities of any modern dwelling and are well-insulated. They take less time to construct and use fewer materials, labor, and vehicles in the process. This means less wood, metal, and gas emissions used along the way! Shipping container homes are a win-win for the resident and the environment. Not to mention that your entire home is a great conversation starter.
Did you know that cork can be harvested from a Cork Oak Tree over a dozen times without hurting the tree? It’s a unique feature of this material that makes it an incredibly sustainable choice for all kinds of building projects, like these cork floors. Better yet, you can upcycle old cork wine bottle tops to become any number of gorgeous DIY projects, like flooring, backsplashes, ceiling tiles, and bulletin boards. Cork is durable and water-safe, so cork flooring is a great option for kitchens and bathrooms. There are companies that install recycled cork flooring, but if you’re handy enough, you can even do it on your own. You’d just have to drink a good bit of wine first.
Newspaperwood is one of the most impressive upcycles to make the list. It is wood that is literally made from old newspapers. They have a fully-automated machine that sandwiches the newspapers together so tightly that they become hard like wood and even have the layers of paper that look like wood grain. The wood can then be turned back into paper and back into wood again and again! The same trees that were used to make the paper the first time are the only ones ever needed to continue making wood and paper products forever! This wood can be made into a variety of beautiful products, like this car finish. Upcycling in a perpetual cycle is sure to make Mother Earth smile.
Another upcycled building material that is rising in popularity is ashcrete. It is concrete made from fly ash, which is a by-product of coal combustion. If we’re going to burn coal for fuels, despite its inefficiency and environmental impact, the least we can do is turn the nasty waste from it into something useful. Using fly ash is actually stronger, more durable, and more eco-friendly than traditional concrete. It even requires less water in the mix than concrete does. The downside is that coal needs to be burned to create it. Maybe one day, we will stop using coal for good and find better solutions. But for now, ashcrete is an awesome way to upcycle some waste products.
Instead of concrete building blocks at all, why not use plastic? We definitely have plenty of unwanted plastic waste and it can be turned into large plastic building blocks. Meet ByBlock–much like the ever-popular Legos, these blocks do not need any type of adhesive because they just fit into each other. They require 83% less carbon emissions than concrete blocks and even use plastics that would otherwise be unrecyclable. With no added chemicals and no waste, these blocks are a very green way to put our plastic back to work. Steam and compression are all that is used to meld the plastic together, so they are cleanly produced. The bonus benefit is that anyone can install them without any special know-how.
Once you’ve built your upcycled abode with eco-friendly upcycled materials, you’ll need to put the roof on. If you’re in the market for upcycled roofing materials, KnoWaste has you covered. They create shingles from dirty diapers! Don’t worry, the first step in the process is sanitation. With most parents using disposable diapers and the aging baby boomer population dealing with incontinence, around 3.5 million tons of diaper waste end up in landfills each year. Sending diapers to a KnoWaste factory to become shingles saves the same amount of space in a landfill as 96 olympic sized swimming pools and removes from the air the same amount of carbon dioxide as 7,500 cars! This company is saving the earth one diaper shingle at a time.
A lot of avid upcyclers would vouch for the irresistible charm of a vintage suitcase. They are so beautiful and have a world-traveler vibe. This makes them perfect for a DIY upcycled project, like this chair. Old luggage can be found in just about any thrift store and can become so many lovely pieces of decor. They can often invoke nostalgia for a bygone era and symbolize a sense of adventure. Use that old suitcase to make a new, chic chair that will impressive your guests and spark joy in your home. Plus, it will keep that material out of landfills.
Since you have a plush suitcase chair now, it is time to upcycle the old, broken wooden chair into a stunning shelf! Befitting the most stylish of farmhouse or bohemian design styles, this shelf would look good on display almost anywhere. Buying a new shelf at the store uses unnecessary wood, energy, and money. You have everything you need to make a gorgeous shelf with just a broken wooden chair. If trees could smile, they would grin ear-to-ear to see wood being upcycled so spectacularly.
Have you ever looked at your pet and thought “you are so cute, you should be on TV.”? Well, upcycle a vintage TV and put that little furball on display! These upcycled TV pet beds are adorable and the animal companions love them. Whimsy meets practicality in these special pet bedrooms. They can be decorated to match just about any style. They can even redecorated again and again if your pet thinks it’s time for a change. It is such a creative way to turn trash into a sweet little treasure.
It may come as a surprise that disposable bamboo chopsticks are one of the leading causes of deforestation in China. Material for chopsticks is unsustainably harvested and then shipped across the world, only to be used once then thrown out. The carbon footprint on a single pair of chopsticks is massive. This industry has reached such a critical point that there are several proposed bans on disposable chopsticks. One company is upcycling these utensils into creative, minimalist home decor. ChopValue collects used disposable chopsticks and creates lovely art pieces and even game boards, like this cribbage board. Initiatives like this might one day save the bamboo forests.
The rise in popularity of single-serve coffee pods in recent years has given way to a new kind of plastic waste. The convenience of these cups overshadows the looming environmental impact that they pose. The good news is that you can upcycle those used coffee pods into great seed starting pots! They are the perfect size to get your little sprouts going before replanting them in the garden. There are lots of other fun things you can craft from them too, like bubble wands, confetti poppers, and even Advent calendars. If you get creative, the upcycling possibilities are endless for coffee pods.
An old mattress can be a burden to get rid of and feels like such a waste of material. Just because it doesn’t offer a comfortable sleep anymore doesn’t mean all those springs and filling should go straight to a landfill. You can make this really cool outdoor light with a repurposed bedspring. You could also use the filling to make throw pillows or seat cushions. The UK alone threw away 7 million mattresses in 2017. Mattresses are also one of the most commonly illegally dumped items. Their large size means that they take up significant amounts of space in the landfill. Mother Earth would definitely approve of upcycling your old mattresses instead.
Upcycle your stale mascara wands to help wildlife. You can clean them off and send them to the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge where they are used to groom animals. The brushes remove dangerous insect eggs and larva, as well as safely clean sand and other irritants from the wild friends. The dense, but soft, bristles are perfect for cleaning up wriggly babies without harming them. They are also perfect for cleaning feeding syringes and other small tools used to help orphaned and injured animals. I can’t think of a sweeter way to repurpose those old makeup wands than to give them to furry friends in need.
Getting rid of an old refrigerator can be cumbersome, but at some point, that appliance will have to be replaced. Instead of hauling your hefty hunk of metal and plastic to the junkyard, make something useful with it, like this cooler! It is conveniently already insulated and large enough for the top to double as table space. It is even easy to move with some wheels attached to the bottom. Dress it up with some appealing wood covering and you’ve got a good looking outdoor cooler for your next party.