By this point, most of us are pretty familiar with the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. But what about all those other environmentally friendly words that get tossed around? Upcycle, biodegradable, low carbon footprint, sustainable…the list seems endless and can easily get overwhelming. Today I’m going to break down one of those potentially less familiar (but still very important) terms for you: Upcycling!

What is Upcycling?

Upcycling uses elements of the three R’s along with some creativity and resourcefulness to give new life to objects that would otherwise be discarded. The big idea behind upcycling is that it transforms an object by adding value to it, rather than just recycling or reusing it.

A structure of pallets, wood and pinecones

An insect hotel made from pallets. Photo Credit: Mika Baumeister

Why does it matter?

The Chesapeake Bay watershed and similar areas are crucial environments for championing the proper disposal (or reuse!) of trash and recycling, as items can easily become washed into a tributary and ultimately wind up in the Bay. Once in the Bay, marine life can become entangled in them or accidentally consume them as they break down into microplastics, which is highly detrimental to the individual organisms and the entire Bay ecosystem. Therefore, it is especially important for those of us in the watershed to ensure we are doing our part to keep our trash and recycling out of the water.

Plants growing out of a milk carton planter box, sitting in a windowsill

A planter made from a milk carton. Photo Credit: Noah Eleazar

Benefits of Upcycling

The benefits of upcycling generally fall into a few major categories: environmental, societal and personal.

  • Environmental: First and foremost, upcycling is all about practicing good stewardship of the planet and using the available resources wisely.
    • Keeps Items out of Landfills – In the United States, around 146 million tons of waste enter landfills each year. Landfills produce gasses, including methane and carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change, so it is best to limit the items entering them whenever possible.
    • Minimizes use of Natural Resources – Processing raw materials often requires large amounts of resources, such as water. However, upcycling means this processing stage can be avoided, conserving these valuable resources.
  • Societal: Upcycling doesn’t just have to be a small-scale practice. If implemented correctly, it can have some dramatic social and economic impacts.
    • Celebrates Craftsmanship and Handmade Items – Purchasing an item that’s made to last a lifetime (or giving new life to an item so that it will continue to be used) is far more sustainable than having to replace a cheaply made item over and over.
    • Supports Local Businesses – Small businesses are a key part of the economy, and supporting local artisans allows them to continue to create upcycled projects.
    • Reduces Manufacturing Costs – The bottom line is that upcycling costs less than raw materials. It’s a win-win for manufacturers and the planet!
  • Personal: Taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of the environment — after all, you can’t pour from an empty cup!
    • Fosters Creativity – Taking time to work on creative projects can help reduce anxiety, depression and overall stress, not to mention the satisfaction that comes from making something yourself.
    • Creates a Sense of Investment and Responsibility – Even something as small as upcycling can have a ripple effect, and it’s an important reminder that we should all be conscious and active caretakers of our planet and its resources.

Do it Yourself: Project Ideas

Now that you know a little more about upcycling and its benefits, I encourage you to try it out. Note: the websites linked below are not affiliated with the Alliance.

Endless Pasta-bilities: transform your empty sauce jars.
Instead of throwing the jar in the recycling once you’ve eaten the sauce inside, wash it thoroughly and soak it in hot water to remove the label (you can scrub it with dish soap or baking soda to remove stubborn residue bits). Once the jar is dry, you have a perfect blank canvas for dozens of projects, like a painted vase or storage container. Click here for some inspiration and instructions.

Before and after photos of an upcycled jar that was painted

Image Credit:

Turn your old t-shirts into some paws-itively phenomenal doy toys.
Does your t-shirt have a stain or rip making it unwearable? Cut it into strips and braid them together to make a durable chew toy that’s also great for some tug of war with your furry friend! Click here for a short video tutorial.

A dog playing with a toy made out of an old shirt

Image Credit: LIVEKINDLY via YouTube

Keep in mind that while I have only included two project ideas here, there are many more forms that upcycling can take, and numerous resources on the internet for guidance and inspiration. And if DIY activities aren’t really your thing but you still want to do your part to keep trash out of the Bay, I encourage you to check out the Alliance’s Project Clean Stream Initiative.

By Zoe Barbour, Green Infrastructure Projects Intern