by Linzy Novotny
The words recycling and upcycling are floating around the collection of key green-living words. But what is the difference between them? In some instances it seems that the words are interchangeable, but the terms also give the impression that the repurposed items take different paths in becoming new items. Either way, it can be agreed that both recycling and upcycling take something that is no longer of use and give it new life.
What is Upcycling? Does it Differ From Recycling?
Heather Murphy of ReaDo Books takes hardcover books and transforms them into handbags. She views her craft as upcycling. “I tend to think of recycling as using something and completely changing its look,” explained Murphy. “Whereas upcycling, I think of as keeping the same or similar appearance but changing its use. So I typically think of my purses as upcycled.”
Irene Gómez—who is based in Venice, Italy—repurposes men’s ties and fabrics to create handbags, necklaces and bracelets. Gómez holds the same view on upcycling as Murphy. “In English, I use upcycled, since there’s no chemical process involved in the transformation. It’s just the shape that changes,” said Gómez. “In Italian there’s not a word for upcycled, so I use ‘riciclare’ meaning recycle or ‘rigenerare’ meaning regenerate.”
According to Upcycle Magazine, upcycling is “taking an item that is no longer needed or wanted and giving it new life as something that is either useful or creative,” as stated on the magazine’s website. “Some would say that upcycling must move goods or supplies up the supply chain while recycling does not. Others would conclude that upcycling is a physical process and recycling is a chemical process.”
From these definitions, we can see that the difference between recycling and upcycling is that recycling breaks down the item that will be repurposed, whereas with upcycling, the item is kept in its original state, or very close to that same state.
There are plenty of upcycled items being made every day. Some examples include an office chair made out of skateboards and belts crafted from repurposed tires to a 55-gallon drum repurposed into a bench. Artist Decomp suspends antlers from spent bullet casings and creates necklaces with them. Looking specifically at the upcycled accessories niche, there are plenty of reasons why artists are making a name for themselves by using repurposed items.
ReadDo Books: Turning your Favorite Hardcover Book into a Purse
Murphy began taking books and making them into handbags when she took her love for fabric and combined it with an idea she read in a magazine. “I began making the book purses two years ago,” said Murphy. “I love fabric but I haven’t sewn since high school. I saw an article in Country Living about the book purses. I love books and I love to create—it was a perfect match.”
Transforming the books takes a number of steps and a few hours. “The process starts with removing the pages. Then you have to measure and cut the lining, finish the edges of the fabric and assemble all the pieces,” recounts Murphy. “On average, I can finish an order in 2 1/2 hours—once I have the materials. I tend to break up the process because I’m a busy mom of four.” She adds, “My favorite part of the process is finding the books and matching it up with the fabric.”
The books come from a couple of places. “Some of the books I buy at flea markets or yard sales. However, the majority of my books are from a locally owned bookshop in my hometown,” said Murphy. “Books they aren’t going to sell go out on a ‘free shelf.’ I’ve scored some awesome finds.” However, if a customer would like to place a custom order, they are more than welcome to send Murphy a book they would like to be made into a purse.
“Absolutely, customers can send me their book. I love taking a book that has special meaning and giving it new life,” said Murphy. “I’ve done this for several people. The most important thing in choosing a book is the condition and width of the binding since this makes the base of the purse. The thicker the book, the more you can fit in the purse.”
Making the most of the books she upcycles, Murphy got the idea from Pinterest to make kusudama balls—which are origami flowers—out of the books’ pages. “Because I start from book pages, I have to remove them, cut them down to squares, fold each one and then glue them all together,” said Murphy of the process. “Again, I break down my work sessions, but this is probably a three to four hour project.” Murphy has also made paper flowers with button centers. “People can use them to embellish hair clips, gift wrapping, scrapbooks, [and so on].”
Using the pages doesn’t end there. Murphy’s husband mats pages with illustrations to be framed. And during Christmas time, Murphy made ornaments. “At Christmas, I made decoupage ornaments with the book pages. My husband takes the book illustrations and mats them into standard sizes for framing,” stated Murphy. “I’m always on the lookout for new things I can do with the pages.”
Murphy’s repurposed book handbags are $40 and $45, while clutches are $25. She also has bundles of books that customers are able to choose titles from that are made to order. These handbags have a $15 deposit with $30 due at time of completion. Kusudama balls are $20 and the matted illustrations are $10 and $15. All of Murphy’s creations are for sale on her online Etsy shop.
Repurposing Fabrics: Giving New Life to Worn-Out Clothes
Gómez of La Gómez, and her social collective La Gagiandra, began making upcycled creations because she wanted to use her resources. She was “a student far from home with little economic resources, but with plenty of time—reusing or upcycling needs more time—[and was] looking for a way to restrict consumption of new materials, being aware of the limitedness of our natural resources.”
Handbags, necklaces and bracelets are created with repurposed clothing because “used clothes have a sentimental value. I love the idea of fabrics passing from hand to hand gathering something from each,” said Gómez, “and I cannot resist the impulse to give them a new chance when they arrive to me—a bag with a piece of my partner’s grandma’s dressing gown or a brooch with a piece of one of my friend’s daughter’s worn-out pajamas. I find it fascinating.”
The handbags are created using two repurposed men’s ties and sell for $22.80. The knotted flower bracelet is crafted using upcycled fabrics and the De Plumas, meaning feathers, cuff bracelet is a repurposed cuff. Both are $25.34. Gómez’s De Plumas collar necklace, which can also be worn as a headband, is crafted using reclaimed and vintage fabrics as well as a repurposed T-shirt. This item sells for $48.14. All of these items are available on Gómez’s Etsy shop.
Taking upcycling to another level, Gómez started her social collective with her partner, Sergio, and their friend, Enrico. The collective collaborates with two homeless shelters. “We offer people from the shelter, one at a time, the opportunity to start a work experience in the textile workshop, aimed to gain autonomy and allow reintegration into society,” Gómez stated on the collective’s Etsy shop.
Originally, “I started creating for fun, or to fulfill my particular needs, then creating fun stuff but rather useless—not practical,” said Gómez. “Now with the cooperative workshop I have the opportunity to create also practical and useful items, giving also a disabled person from the shelter the opportunity to find a comfortable and creative place to work in, far from conventional market dynamics.”
Items in the collective’s Etsy shop include accessories—smartphone cases for $8.83 and tote bags for $30.26—as well as housewares—pot holders are $13.87 each and a wall-hanging, pocket organizer is $56.74. All of these creations are made with upcycled fabrics that have been collected from a variety of places. All of these items are available on the collective’s Etsy shop.
“I repurpose mainly clothes, but also other fabrics from home linens or whatever else,” said Gómez. “The main part arrives from my circle of friends and neighbors, from their attics—or my or their relatives’ attics—or what they do not use anymore or throw away when doing spring or autumn cleaning in the wardrobe.”
“Since we’ve started the textile workshop as a cooperative, we’ve enlarged the circle because we need more material. But, it is always local and donated,” Gómez said. “We collaborate with the city shelter, and clothes that are still in good condition go to their wardrobe.”
Pop Tabs: Used for More than Just Opening Cans
Straying away from upcycled fabrics, Diane DeWitt of Diane K Designs takes something that would seemingly not be on the list of things to upcycle—pop tabs—and creates handbags and bracelets. She started using the pop tabs after a suggestion from her brother.
“My brother owned a store that sold recycled items and he mentioned that he had seen things made from pop tabs, candy wrappers [and so on],” said DeWitt. “I was fascinated with the idea, and started experimenting with different ways to combine crochet and pop tabs. After many hours of trial and error, I had finished my first purse.”
Before DeWitt can begin to assemble her handbags and bracelets, she must first clean and sand each pop tab. “About a third of that time comes from cleaning, sanding, and buffing the pop tabs and the rest is crocheting and sewing,” she said. “Thankfully the bracelets are faster.”
A medium-sized handbag contains around 700 pop tabs, while a large-sized bag has about 1,200. With needing so many pop tabs, how does DeWitt collect enough? “As soon as I started to make accessories from pop tabs, several people started collecting them for me,” said DeWitt. “My husband took some pictures of my things to work with him and he brings tabs home from the office.”
“People at my Mom and Dad’s church donate them weekly, and a local restaurant owner saves them up and brings over a big batch every so often. It’s amazing how many people want to contribute,” said DeWitt.
Needing to crochet so many pop tabs together, the process is an effort of love. “Part of me didn’t want to know how much time each purse took to make, but my husband and I figured out it takes me about four days to make a medium-sized purse,” said DeWitt. “I can get one bracelet done in a few hours if I have pop tabs ready to go.”
Large-sized pop tab handbags are $120 and the medium-sized Lady Di bag is $89.99. Bracelets are $14.95. DeWitt has several sizes and variations of her handbag to choose from at her Etsy shop.
From hardcover books and men’s ties to pop tabs, plenty of different mediums are being used to create handbags, as well as other accessories. Upcycling takes something that is no longer of use or in use and, keeping that item in nearly the same condition, is given a new life as something else. As with recycling, upcycling is the collective efforts of many and is helping to reduce the amount of waste we create. “It has been great seeing how many people want to contribute,” said DeWitt. “There was even a homeless lady who wanted to help recycle, and saved a baggy full of pop tabs for me.”