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upcycling vs downcycling

Upcycling ideas: get creative with these 20 projects

From repurposing old records to upcycling denim, flex your creative muscles while reducing waste with these easy upcycling ideas.

Considering upcycling?

If you are tired of overflowing closets or a living room that looks like a yard sale exploded, why not give these upcycling ideas a try? 

Upcycling is all about seeing the potential in everyday items. It’s the process of creating something new and more valuable from old or waste materials. A growing number of people are turning their upcycling ideas into successful businesses, like Robert Luo, who makes eco-plastic from brewers’ waste. But upcycling is also really easy to do at home.

From transforming a worn sweater into a cozy throw pillow to turning a broken guitar into a shelf, almost anything can be upcycled. The only limit is your imagination (and your ability to wield a hot glue gun without burning your fingers). 

The best part? You get to feel like a DIY genius while helping the planet. That’s because upcycling helps divert items from landfills, cuts down on the need for raw materials and finds new uses for everyday items. Upcycling is a creative way to reduce waste, be environmentally conscious and save money all at the same time.

Unleash your inner artist and discover the joy of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary with these upcycling ideas.

Be creative, upcycling should be fun! You can create art, or turn old bottles into useful new products. Left: Pilar Flores, via Unsplash. Right: Mitosh, via Unsplash.

Upcycling – getting started

Just imagine the look on your friends’ faces when you tell them the ‘vintage’ lamp they admired was actually made from an old coffee can. 

So, grab those scissors, glue and a healthy dose of creativity. The upcycling possibilities are endless. The fun (and compliments) are just an added bonus.

Top 20 upcycling ideas

Before throwing something out, consider how it can be repurposed or reused. Remember: upcycling transforms items without breaking them down, often resulting in products of higher quality and value. This is different from recycling, which involves breaking down used items to create raw materials, usually for similar products. Think of a notebook made from recycled paper.

Whether you’re a seasoned upcycler or just starting out, there are countless ways to ignite your creativity and reduce waste. Here are our top 20 upcycling ideas:

  1. Coasters from corks. Don’t throw away used wine corks – turn them into coasters. Simply glue the corks together in a pattern of your choice and you have a stylish, eco-friendly way to protect your furniture.
  2. Jar planters. Those empty glass jars cluttering your cupboards can be transformed into charming planters for herbs and succulents. Clean the jars thoroughly, add some potting soil and watch your new greenery grow.
  3. Tin can storage. Recycle tin cans into handy storage containers for office supplies, craft materials or makeup brushes. Decorate the tins with paint, fabric or labels to match your decor.
  4. Teacup bird feeders. Give old teacups a new purpose as whimsical bird feeders. Attach a hook to the cup’s handle and fill the cup with birdseed for a delightful addition to your outdoor space.
  5. Spoon hooks. Transform unwanted spoons into towel or coat hooks. Hammer the head of the spoons flat and attach them to a wooden plaque or the wall, then bend the handles to create the hook. You can also personalize the hooks by engraving them with the user’s name.
  6. Plastic bag dish scrubbers. Keep plastic out of the environment and make washing up more fun by crocheting plastic bags into little shapes. Use them to scrub pots and dishes.
  7. Colander light fixture. Remove the colander’s handle, add a light socket to the base and voila – you have a shabby chic light fixture at next to no cost.
  8. Vinyl record bowl. Nearly half of vinyl owners don’t actually play their records, according to one survey. If that sounds like you, upcycling your vinyl can give it a new lease on life. Carefully heat and shape the record to create a functional piece that adds a retro touch to your home.

If you are a more experienced DIY-er, you can try these more advanced upcycling ideas:

  1. Tennis racket mirror. Remove the strings from the racket, attach a mirror to the frame (you may need to get the glass custom made to ensure a perfect fit) and you have an unusual accent piece.
  2. Computer hard drive clock. Carefully disassemble the hard drive to expose the internal components. The metal platters inside can be repurposed as the clock face. Add clock hands, a clock movement mechanism and a frame, and you’ve got an upcycled timepiece that blends art and tech.
  3. Wine bottle chandelier. Make a statement by cutting and arranging empty wine bottles to create a stunning chandelier. Choose bottles to match your interior, or mix it up with bottles of different colors.
  4. Bathtub sofa. Renovating your bathroom and have a tub you don’t need? Cut open one side of the bathtub, line the base with pillows and you have a surprisingly comfortable reading nook.
  5. Pallet garden. Wooden pallets can be repurposed into a vertical garden, allowing you to grow herbs, flowers or small plants in a space-saving and visually appealing way. Bees and insects will love it too.
upcycling denim

Cho, via Unsplash. The image shows denim that has been upcycled into an oversized tote bag and multiple different jeans combined into a fresh new pair.

Upcycling clothes

Another easy and impactful way to reduce waste is by upcycling clothes. A staggering percentage of the clothes we buy – up to 85% – ends up in landfill. On top of that, the average consumer now purchases 60% more items of clothing compared to 20 years ago but keeps each garment for half as long. 

Upcycling clothes gives new life to pre-loved garments. This not only helps to reduce the fashion industry’s huge environmental impact but also creates unique outfits and items that celebrate your individuality. 

Upcycling denim

Denim is particularly versatile when it comes to clothes upcycling. Denim’s durability makes it an ideal material for a variety of upcycling projects. In addition, denim never goes out of style. 

Danish apparel company VAER aims to produce waste-free fashion by upcycling old denim into new sneakers

“We’re trying to make textile upcycling scaleable,” explains Lili Dreyer, who founded the company in 2019 while still a student. “The upper part of the shoe is made from jeans that we get from the Salvation Army. Often they have a hole or a stain and can no longer be worn. This way, we can still use the fabric to make something new.”

VAER has now grown to employ 80 people in its production facility, but denim can easily be turned into all manner of unique, functional items at home. Want to try upcycling denim yourself? Ideas include:

  • Denim tote bag. Cut the legs off an old pair of jeans and stitch the bottom closed to create a sturdy, reusable shopping bag. For extra upcycling credit, you can incorporate the jeans’ pockets as decorative elements.

  • Denim baseball cap. Cut the legs into the desired shape, stitch them together and add a sturdy brim for a timeless, eco-friendly headpiece.

  • Denim coffee cup warmer. This is another upcycling idea that uses the legs of jeans. Cut the legs into strips, wrap them around your favorite mugs and secure with a button or snap.
  • Jeans pockets wall organizer. Remove the pockets and attach them to a wooden board or backing to create a useful storage solution for small items like keys, pens or even plants.
  • Denim wreath. Go rustic with a reusable door or table wreath. Cut denim into strips of varying widths. Wrap and glue the strips around a wreath form, layering and overlapping them to create a textured, patchwork effect.
  1. Denim scrunchie. Because the ’90s are back! To make this simple hair tie, cut the denim into a long strip. Fold and stitch it into a tubular shape, insert an elastic band and sew the ends of the fabric together to form a ruffled circle.
  2. No-sew denim laptop or e-reader sleeve. For the sewing averse, a no-sew e-reader sleeve is an easy upcycle. Cut off and discard the legs of an old pair of jeans (or use them for something else). Glue the top of the jeans around the e-reader and you’ve got a custom-fitted case. 

Creative upcycling projects

Whether you’re turning crates into cupboards or electrical wire into earrings, upcycling is a great way to express your creativity, save money and reduce waste. 

By finding new uses for items you already have, you can free up space, refresh your interior and make unique gifts, all while having a positive impact on the planet. Think outside the (old wooden) box and see what upcycling ideas come to mind. You may be surprised at the hidden treasures you uncover in your own home.

upcycled bottles into chandelier idea
Ole Kloth, via Unsplash. Upcycled wine bottles: repurposed as hanging lights.