It was 50 years ago that the Viennese designer Victor Papanek published Design for the Real World, a critique of the environmentally toxic culture of designing things to be consumed and then tossed away. Papanek described a prevailing “Kleenex Culture” in Western societies. Today, these places are dealing with the aftereffects of this unsustainable consumption.
Throughout the ages, people have always discarded what they no longer need. Throwing things away, however, was balanced out by what could be repaired, reused, or repurposed, otherwise known as ‘creative reuse’, and now ‘recycling’. This practice was common in societies the world over, that is until the rise of mass consumption in the mid 20th century, where in wealthy nations, at least, it became cheaper to throw something away than to fix it, leading to our present-day throwaway culture. As the environmental impact of rubbish has grown, talk of upcycling has gone mainstream.
Recycling is the process of turning unwanted waste materials into new materials and objects. Upcycling is reworking those unwanted materials or objects into something new and of higher value. The term ‘upcycling’ was first coined by economist Gunther Pauli in his 1999 book Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions- More Jobs, More Income and No Pollution. It was later popularised by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Like Papanek these authors challenge us to rethink the way we consume and discard things.
“People have long been forced to get creative with what they have to hand.”
Throughout history, turning waste into something of value has emerged from necessity. People have long been forced to get creative with what they have to hand. A profound example of this is the Russian artist Vladimir Archipov’s archive of unique, functional, and imaginative pieces handmade from found objects by citizens in the former Soviet Union at a time when manufactured goods were hard to come by. In another touching example, the scarcity of luxury fabrics in the 1940s saw war-time brides in the UK using discarded parachute silks to create their wedding dresses.
Today upcycling waste materials remains common among communities, in particular in parts of Africa, Latin America and South east Asia. Given scant availability and cost of buying new manufactured goods and raw materials, upcycling is often a means of survival. Take Jugaad, meaning ‘quick fix’, ‘hack’, ‘workaround’ in Hindi, it is an Indian concept of making the most of the resources you have: Thinking creatively to solve problems and make something work.
In contrast to this ‘make do’ approach, the rise in upcycling in a modern predominantly Western world is a response to the main issue of needing to reduce what we consume and dealing with our mountains of waste. Rubbish is to some extent managed in regions like Western Europe, North America, but not always ethically. Just take headlines such as Malaysia sending 4,120 tons of plastic trash back to 13 rich countries. This highlights a long-standing practice of Western countries exporting garbage to less wealthy nations in Africa and Asia, exploiting their less stringent regulations on disposal.
“In 17th century, Ghanaian weavers would unravel traded silk cloths, using the threads in their own woven strip cloth designs”
In many places, rubbish finds its way into the streets. In West Africa, for example, this has prompted designers such as Ousmane Mbaye from Senegal and Hamed Ouattara from Burkina Faso to come up with local solutions. Taking oil barrels and other metals discarded by Western corporations, these designers turn scrap into innovative furniture pieces sought after by global collectors.
Upcycling has emerged as central to diverse forms of art and design. We see this with Kintsugi, a Japanese art form that grew out of taking something broken and making it whole again. Thought to have originated in the 15th century, Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum lacquer. Rather than taking away the beauty of an object, Kintsugi highlights an item’s flaws and history, imbuing it with greater value.
Textiles is another area where upcycling has been highly innovative. In 17th century, Ghanaian weavers would unravel traded silk cloths, using the threads in their own woven strip cloth designs called Kente, a fabric worn by royalty. Mending or patching together old fabric scraps to create a new fabric also characterises Boro, another ancient Japanese art form that began with rural villagers. Too poor to buy new clothing, they would continuously rework scraps resulting in some of the clothing being passed and reworked through several generations. This mending fabric approach is also seen in India where old saris and cloths were stitched together to create blankets and cushions known as Kantha, the Sanskrit word for ‘rags’. Kantha fabrics are highly sought after in today. Quilting is another history upcycled fabric technique. Thought to date as far back as ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3400 BC), the craft that involves scrap materials to make padded textiles valued for their beauty, preserving cultures through the stories they tell.
“Upcycling at the start of the 21st century is a form of creative activism, halting damage inflicted on our environment”
Upcycling as we know it dates the 1980s amid talk of the principles of a circular economy, which seeks to minimise waste and environmental impact by keeping products in use for as long as possible. Upcycling at the start of the 21st century is a form of creative activism, halting damage inflicted on our environment, empowering communities, and reviving creative cultural practices.
Designers are actively seeking new ways to make the products we consume more sustainable. Those leading the way include Egypt’s Studio Reform who upcycle plastic bags to create a new material called Plastex that is woven into lifestyle products. In Hong Kong, Wheel Thing Makers use waste materials as parts for upcycled bikes, while in Belgium, EcoBirdy turn old plastic toys into children’s furniture. And linking upcycling to culture British/Nigerian artist Yinka Ilori transforms old unwanted chairs with bright colours and fabrics based around the parables of his Nigerian heritage.
As awareness grows of the impact of our consumption habits, prolonging the lifecycle of materials and products is paramount. Wealthy or developing economy, upcycling has become a necessity for all.