Why upcycling is more than just a fad

Written by: Karin Holzknecht | Published:
Upcycling volunteers

Karin Holzknecht at Groundwork London examines how reuse project The Loop is changing attitudes in the capital, cutting waste and bringing other social benefits too.

Upcycling is having a moment. The term generally refers to taking an item destined for disposal and using one’s creativity and skill to give it a second lease of life – anything from a quick repair and polish job to disassembling an item and using the pieces in a new project.

It’s a reuse concept that, taken to its full potential, has the capacity to reduce pressure on the waste and resource management industry, and deliver a lot of other social benefits besides.

While often talked about in reference to furniture, almost any object or textile can be upcycled, making it a concept that applies across industries and that sits in the sweet spot between many different lifestyle movements.

As Lee Brown from Hackney reuse hub The Loop says: “It’s eco-friendly, it’s a craft, it’s about slowing down and being mindful, it saves you money, and it shows your individuality in a world full of copycats.”

Some might dismiss upcycling as just another fad, but it’s been around longer than you might think, and resonates with a make-do-and-mend mindset that has been sustained beyond the standard lifetime of a passing craze.

More than a fad

In the past, furniture was made to last and costed more – items were passed down through families and were easier to repair than replace. Now one can get furniture that is produced cheaply and is more affordable. A family can set up a whole house for less, but items are not necessarily built to last.

“I think there is an increasing awareness about how unsustainable our throwaway culture is. There’s an understanding that ‘fast furniture’ – like ‘fast fashion’ and ‘fast food’ – has its downsides,” said Andrea Naef, estate reuse co-ordinator of Barnet’s The Loop.

“Whether people go to a lot of effort to unleash their creativity, or focus on essential repairs, upcycling ultimately ensures items can continue to be used, rather than sent for disposal.”

The only way is up…cycle

Recently, North London Waste Authority (NLWA) and environmental charity Groundwork London hosted the second London Upcycling Show, an event showcasing local reuse and upcycling initiatives in a bid to encourage Londoners to try repairing, repurposing or donating items rather than disposing of them.

In the event feedback, 88% of attendees said they learnt something new about reuse, repair and upcycling, and 75% said they would reuse, upcycle and repair more and throw away less.

Councillor Clyde Loakes, chair of NLWA, said: “Through this event we hoped to encourage everyone to consider upcycling their own furniture or buying reused furniture – it’s unique, stylish and great value for money. And we particularly hoped to inspire each other to try upcycling and learn new skills.

“The show may be over for this year, but we will continue doing our bit to highlight the importance of reuse and run projects which promote and provide opportunities for reuse. For example, we’ll be running seven Give and Take Days coming up in January and February 2018.”

Ben Coles, director of communities and environmental services at Groundwork London, said: “There was a great vibe at the event. Everyone was keen to learn, share skills and experience, and get some inspiration. Hopefully those who came will pass on what they learned to family, friends, communities and workplaces.”

Tommy Walsh of Groundforce judges an upcycling competition

Part of the event involved running an upcycling competition for people living, working or studying across seven north London boroughs. The 25 contestants had less than three weeks to transform a piece of furniture.

The competition is estimated to have diverted about half a tonne of furniture from disposal. That’s a drop in the 670,000-tonne-per-year ocean of furniture going to bulky waste in the UK – but what the competitors had to say about upcycling indicates their reuse activities are far from being a one-off.

Their reasons for upcycling ran the full spectrum, from necessity to creative outlet. For many their interest is part of a broader lifestyle choice, indicating this ‘trend’ is here to stay.

“I often move around due to rent increases. Spending on furniture adds to moving costs, so most of my pieces are upcycled from skips, the roadside, or from friends of friends,” said Camilla, an entrant from Waltham Forest.

Some liked that the competition highlighted the environmental benefits of upcycling. Luke from Haringey commented: “I'm always spotting fly-tipped stuff that can be recycled or repurposed. It’s great to do something to encourage people to repair things or turn them into something functional.”

Still others considered the competition a challenge for their creative skills. The competition’s overall winner, Helen from Waltham Forest, said: “It’s amazing what can be done with a piece of old furniture you’d never think you could reuse. It’s taught me not to dismiss something because of its outdated shape or worn appearance.”

Taking a load off

Whatever motivates individuals to upcycle or buy secondhand, there’s certainly plenty of scope for it.

We might assume this bulky waste is past it, but research conducted by the WRAP shows that just under half the furniture taken to household waste recycling centres, and 45% of furniture collected at kerbside, is reusable in its current condition or with slight repair. These numbers show significant potential for reuse.

To bring that much closer to home, we could look at the results from the REPURPOSE project, which sought to harness the furniture reuse potential on London housing estates.

Groundwork London delivered this €1.1m project between 2014 and 2017 in partnership with the London Community Resource Network and Middlesex University, co-funded by the EU LIFE+ Programme.

The project centred on the key challenge that, despite efforts to engage residents, reuse on housing estates remains low and fly-tipping of bulky waste is high. It supported residents to create community reuse enterprises on their estates – 'The Loops' – transforming redundant spaces into hubs for collecting, refurbishing and redistributing household items; and equipping local people with the skills and resources to reuse more, reduce fly-tipping and improve the local environment.

Across the five Loops, over 7,150 bulky items (or 102 tonnes) were removed from the waste stream. Half of items came from residents and 30% from fly-tipping; 70% of items needed no work done, or only a light clean. As a result, over 3,650 low-cost furniture items were provided for low-income and vulnerable families.

Over its lifetime, the project also provided local volunteering and employment opportunities for 65 volunteers, demonstrating the reuse industry’s potential for boosting local economies. Many of these volunteers were trained through the project in skills they can now use for life.

“People come to the shop because it’s close to where they live and it’s cheap,” said Andrea from The Loop @ Grahame Park. “The upcycling we do is about providing people with affordable alternatives to disposable furniture.”

Stephen Matthews, estate reuse co-ordinator of Hackney’s The Loop @ Pembury, added: “It’s about helping people think twice. If someone sees us sell the table they fly-tipped, after just a little clean up, then they wonder, ‘Hold on, why did I throw that away? I could fix it up or sell it myself.’ We demonstrate the potential of reuse at The Loops, changing perceptions of what waste is.”

It’s clear that interest in upcycling is here to stay, bringing with it genuine conversations about the environmental, social and economic benefits of reuse. With those conversations there also needs to be continued support for locally focused initiatives offering skills, tools and advice – such as the London Upcycling Show, or the Loops – so awareness about reuse can be transformed into action.

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