by Margaret Mendel

The saying “One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure” was never more true than when it comes to upcycling.

What is upcycling? It is the process of taking something that would ordinarily be thrown away and making it into something that has equal or greater use.

What is the difference between upcycling and recycling? Recycling converts materials and products into materials of lesser quality and is involved in changing or extracting useful materials from a product and creating a different product or material. Upcycling actually turns what is seen as a discarded item or garbage into something useful.

Upcycling is a philosophy that transforms how we conceive of waste and is a new way of thinking about how to deal with garbage. It challenges us to redesign the materials we use.

Boy in Green Apple Kids cutting sleeve

I first experienced upcycling when I visited a program called Green Apple Kids, a nonprofit afterschool and workshop program that teach children and parents about the importance of ecological and environmental sustainability. In this session the kids and their parents were converting old t-shirts into carryall bags. The bottom edges of the t-shirts were sewn closed and the sleeves cut off leaving the shoulder seam intact, and voilà each shirt had been converted into a bag. That is upcycling, making something that is no longer needed into something that is useful.

Boy with finished bag

The ideas for upcycling are limitless and if you can’t come up with an idea of your own, the Internet is loaded with suggestions for turning what might seem useless junk and garbage into something quite practical, in many cases stronger, and certainly, one of a kind. For instance, have you ever thought about turning an old deflated bicycle inner tube into a durable wallet that only goes flat when you run out of money? Or, paint an empty cottage cheese container, poke holes in the bottom and turn it into a decorative planter. Many items sold on, a website that sells handcrafted items, are made with upcycled material. Have fun with this link on how to make a wallet out of a milk carton.

It’s not only the craft minded person who’s turning what is considered garbage into attractive and usable items. Savvy business-minded folks have also begun to take advantage of the potentials in upcycling. It is estimated that 510,000 tons of milk and juice cartons are produced every year and only .05% gets recycled. TerraCycle, a company started in 2009, has joined ranks with nonprofits and 6,000 schools in the effort to repurpose milk cartons and juice packets that would have ordinarily been dumped into landfills. The cartons are purchased from the schools and nonprofits and then turned into tote bags and other useful items. A percentage of the profits from the sale of these items are donated to nonprofit programs, homeless shelters and some of the profit is used to purchase more cartons. In the latest project TerraCycle has joined forces with Old Navy to collect used flip-flops to be recycled and used as ground cover in public playgrounds. Between April 22 and May 21 old flip-flops can be dropped off at Old Navy locations.

Another upcycle business,, makes handbags using recycled material, including recycled paper, rice sacks, plastic and juice packs. The handbags are made using fair labor in the Philippines. carries a Green America’s Seal of Approval and this business donates $1 per order to Global Exchange.

Here is a fun upcycling project for dyeing Easter eggs using the dried and usually discarded dried outer skins of onions. These will not be the typical pastel Easter eggs but will have an earthy marbled look. For this activity you will need the following:

Items needed for Easter Egg project

Eggs, only use white eggs
Dried onion skins, from red and yellow cooking onions
Clean cloth, 6 to 8 inches square, or basket type coffee filters or clean discarded pantyhose
Rubber bands
2 or 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Pot for boiling water
A few drops of vegetable oil on a paper towel

Cover the eggs with at least one layer of the dried onion skins. Mixing the red and yellow skins makes for an interesting light and dark textured pattern on the surface of the eggshell. Pull the cloth or coffee filter tightly around the egg and secure with a rubber band. The closer that the cloth hugs the egg the more pronounced will be the marbling effect in the dyeing process. Place eggs in a pot with cold water (this will prevent the eggs from cracking once the water begins to boil) and add the vinegar.

There are two schools of thought in how to boil an egg. One method is to cook the eggs for 7 minutes once the water comes to a boil. Another way of making hard boiled eggs is to remove the pot from the stove once the water boils for a minute or two, leave the eggs in the hot water for about 45 minutes or until the water has cooled completely.

When the eggs are cool, remove the rubber band and what ever was used to wrap around the eggs. Peel off the onion skins and carefully pat the eggs dry. Wipe the eggs with the oiled paper towel.

Finished Egg

Place the onion skin colored eggs into a decorative dish, set the display out for everyone to admire and be proud that from this simple upcycling project you have created something quite beautiful. And this is a great way to introduce your friends and family to the concept behind upcycling.

You can find Etsy coupons on their coupon page.

Margaret Mendel was born in San Jose and has a Master’s degree in Counseling from the University of San Francisco & a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Currently residing in New York, she has had several short stories and articles published.

1 Comment

  1. I like this idea of recycling and upcycling. I’m trying to use upcycling, I am using as flower pots some discarded bottoms of plastic water bottles , made some holes and have them useful
    Thank you for sharing that tip regarding how to dye eggs in a natural way.

    wish you well



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