Upcycling is the process of taking discarded materials and making them into a new product. While recycling involves breaking down an item into something of lesser quality, upcycling adds value by reinventing a disposable item. Nishadh Mohammed and Papia Lahiri Saini check out the trend and talk to those engaged in upcycling
It was around four years ago that Sruti Harihara Subramanian was planning to set up a terrace garden. That was when she found that the city was not eco-friendly. There were no compost pits available, garbage lay around and there was a lack of interest among people to recycle and reuse. She started meeting many like-minded, ecologically sensitive people in the course of her research. “We talked about how it was difficult to expect people to make that extra effort and recycle waste. Ours is a consumption-driven society. We take up things that are easily accessible. That’s when the idea of upcycling struck. I had a retail background and knew that if we upcycled items and sold them, it would be trendy, would strike a chord,” she recalls. This led her to start her own store, Goli Soda, in 2013, which brought together inventors, designers, evangelists and people who wanted to make a change for the better. “I wanted to offer people a choice of high-quality, well-designed products that could compete with regular products and also be eco-friendly. The best way to make sustainability easy is to give people access to it, they don’t have to radically change their lifestyle,” she says. Her store sells wallets upcycled from old tyres, jewellery made from PET bottle plastic, interesting bags made from discarded vinyl advertisement, coasters made from juice tetrapaks and milk covers, gramophone LP record clocks and more.
Anybody can upcycle
Driven by her passion for waste management, Uma Dotc, who was also the curator of the world’s first Sustainability Museum called Suseum in Chennai (now closed), formed Upcycle It in August 2014, which makes new products from waste. It helps one contribute to establishing a new economic model and decrease one’s carbon footprint. Upcycle It conducts workshops on Upcycling, Vertical Gardening, Composting and Crafts, which help create awareness about waste management, waste segregation and the three R’s – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle -- and now Upcycle. “Upcycling is not martial arts where you have to put in more hours, learning or investing money. It’s all about gathering waste materials -- and looking at how we can develop them into a new and useful product. The day-to-day things that we use, ranging from papers, plastics, milk covers and dead electronic products (including accessories), can be upcycled. For instance, you can cut the sleeves of an old t-shirt, seal the end and make a quick bag out of it. It’s not rocket science. Anybody can be an Upcyclist and make products even to sell. When each and every person starts upcycling their waste and buying less, the waste produced will also be less and this will help the environment as well. Besides, this can also be a good source of income if taken up professionally.”
Creatively rewarding experience
In the hands of Anjali Venkat, glass, wood and paper get fashioned into trays, planters, diyas and dishes. Anjali recently moved to Singapore from Chennai, but comes here twice a week to take classes for enthusiasts. “As a glass artist my main area of expertise is upcycling glass. I use discarded glass bottles, broken windows and broken mirrors to create one-of-akind pieces of functional art. I collect, clean, cut, shape, layer, melt and mold the humblest materials, to make vases, dishes, serving platters, table tops, jewellery, et all,” she says. So water, cola and other PET bottles get turned into jewellery and magazine paper is used to adorn tabletops. “Glass is a difficult medium to work with and different types of bottles behave differently. But ultimately it is creatively rewarding to upcycle it and good for the environment too,” adds Anjali.
Chitra Mandanna, who has shown widely, uses a range of media — from water colours and acrylics to pastels, oil, charcoal and stone — to convey how strong a promoter she is of upcycling, converting unusual objects into works of art. Chitra doesn’t sell her products, but rather, makes customized products for her clients. “For example, customers can get their favourite t-shirts, jeans, shirts etc converted into personalised dresses, bags, scarves, skirts, aprons, cushion covers and art works. They can even get their old furniture turned into refurbished radical forms or art,” she says. Although a relatively new concept, Chitra’s journey has been hassle-free. “I personally do not see any challenge and have not come across any. People who sell upcycled products might face hurdles in marketing them since potential customers might not clearly understand the value addition that the ‘upcycler’ has made. It’s still a very niche market and people need to be educated — through upcycling — to be more sensitive towards the environment and this will give them ideas on how to do it themselves. When you embrace upcycling, you see beauty in everything. I am also very glad to see that I am inspiring many people, especially children, to rethink how they consume.”
Not quite a mass market
Devi Chand, an NIFT graduate and founder of PaperMelon accessories, that has been around for over seven years now, creates edgy jewellery from paper and cardboard that finds a clientele even in the US. Converting everyday materials into wearable pieces of art, she designs attractive accessories ranging from temple jewellery to tribal and antique pieces with a contemporary twist. The products are moisture-resistant and mostly lightweight. But she says while upcycling has created a buzz in India, it still remains a relatively new and less accepted concept. “We Indians have a tendency to fix a worth to something the minute we look at it. We are not willing to pay much for upcycled products, we consider it overpriced. The general attitude is — why should I pay for something that’s made from trash. But this takes more time and effort than conventional means of making jewellery, which people don’t understand. However, of late, I have seen many stores dedicated to upcycled products coming up and the consumer’s attitude will change through education and by creating proper awareness.”