The world of zero waste can be daunting, there’s so much to consider, a lot to learn, and some pretty radical changes to make. However, if you’re just setting out on your journey, there are some simpler ways to start cutting back on the waste in our world. One of the best first steps is upcycling


What is Upcycling? 

Upcycling is the process of turning unwanted or would-be-waste goods into new, often artistic, items. The term was coined as the opposite of downcycling, where products are recycled into new materials that are of lesser quality – for example, turning synthetic fibers into plastic composite wood.

The term has been around for more than 20 years but has really taken off in the last few as people look for ways to lessen their consumer impact. The actual process of upcycling – turning old items into new useful items – is of course much older, and often came out of economic need rather than environmental concern. 

A now-famous example of this is the feed sack dresses of the late 19th and early 20th century, which were common in rural communities across America and Canada. These were items of clothing made from cotton sacks in which basic commodities such as flour, sugar, and animal feed were packaged and sold. These became so popular that in the early 1900s, manufacturers actually started printing patterns on their cotton sacks to increase the likelihood of them being reused, as well as boosting sales – now that’s thinking circular! 

These days, upcycling still includes lots of homemade clothes, but there are simpler projects too, and this range of possibilities makes upcycling a perfect activity to do with children. Zero waste, and the need to reduce our environmental footprints, can be hard to explain to children, and upcycling offers a great way to engage kids in the topic in a fun, educational, and practical way. Here are three upcycling projects for adults and children so you can get stuck into your zero-waste journey.


Three Upcycling Ideas To Get You Started

1. Upcycled Cork Board Project

This project will only take about an hour, depending on the size of corkboard you desire and is a great way to ensure that natural wine corks don’t end up in the trash. It takes some time to collect the corks, but once you do, it’s relatively simple to cut them in half and glue them to a frame or backboard to create your own upcycled corkboard for notes.

What you’ll need:

  • 45+ natural wine corks
  • Some type of frame (with a backing)
  • Glue
  • Knife
  • Saucepan


What to do: 

  1. First, boil your corks in water for about ten minutes. This will ensure they are clean and make them soft enough to cut in half. 
  2. Take the corks out of the water and cut them in half, in disks, or a mix to suit your creativity.
  3. Wait for the corks to dry (this shouldn’t take long).
  4. Arrange your corks in the frame so that they fill it entirely and it looks pleasing to you. 
  5. Glue the corks down one at a time to keep the order and pattern
  6. Wait for the board to dry. 


Upcycled Material: Cork is an incredibly useful and versatile material. However, wine corks can’t be reused due to health and safety standards and they aren’t widely collected for recycling in the US. Cork, being a completely natural material, can be composted. However, this can take several years on a home compost pile and it’s always better to reuse than recycle. 


2. Old Candles to New

It may seem like a small thing, but all those candle ends from romantic dinners and relaxing baths can quickly build up. Melting down old wax to make new candles is extremely simple – just collect together the ends of old candles, remove the wicks, warm them using a double boiler and repour! You can experiment with scents, colors, sizes, and shapes once you get the hang of this upcycling project
What you’ll need:

  • Old candles
  • Hammer
  • Saucepan (one slightly smaller than the other)
  • Molds (old jars or chipped teacups make for great candles OR reusable molds such as silicone muffin trays)
  • Pre-waxed wicks


What to do:

  1. Try to separate waxes by type (paraffin, soy, bees, etc) as well as color and scent. 
  2. Take one type of waste wax and break up any large chunks into smaller pieces and remove wicks or other contaminants.
  3. If using reusable molds, spray them with a small amount of oil to make the candles easier to remove.
  4. Place the pre-waxed wicks in your molds.
  5. Heat a pan of boiling water on the stove and place another inside it. 
  6. Start adding small pieces of wax to the top pan and wait for them to melt.
  7. Pour the melted wax into your molds.
  8. Allow the wax to cool and trim the wick. The bigger the wick, the bigger the flame. 

Upcycled Material: There are several types of wax from which candles can be made, the most common of which is paraffin wax, derived from petroleum. You can also get candles made from natural waxes such as beeswax and soy wax, which is biodegradable, but are less common. Making use of old candle ends keeps them out of the landfill (although paraffin wax is best avoided if possible). 


3. Plastic Bottle Planters

Plastic bottles are a nightmare for landfills and are rarely recycled, so why not upcycle those old bottles into something useful? It’s as simple as cutting a bottle in two and comes with a built-in water reservoir and wick to help draw water into the soil.

What you’ll need:

  • Plastic bottles
  • Potting soil
  • Duct tape
  • String
  • Scissors
  • Mesh
  • Seeds


What to do:

  1. Clean the bottles thoroughly to ensure no liquid, labels, or residue remains. 
  2. Cut the bottles about three-quarters of the way up so you have the top as one section and the bottom as another. 
  3. Turn the top part upside down and place it into the bottom part. 
  4. Run tape around the top edge (where the two pieces meet), to keep them together and remove sharp edges. 
  5. Take the string and place it through the opening of the bottle (where the lid used to be), ensuring it’s long enough to reach the bottom of the bottle with slack at the top. 
  6. Cut a piece of mesh big enough to cover the opening of the bottle and lay It over the space.
  7. Pour in the potting soil until it’s almost at the top. 
  8. Plant your seed or seedling and give it a little water. 


Upcycled Material: Plastic bottles. An awful offender of the environmental and zero waste movement, plastic bottles are single-use, polluting, and take hundreds of years to break down. When they do break down, they become microplastics that go on polluting. This project takes something that destroys environments and uses it to grow new ones. 


These Easy Upcycling Ideas Are Just the Start

Upcycling is a new word for an old practice, which when considered, is actually very fitting. It’s a simple practice that offers a wonderful window into the world of zero waste for people of any age and ability. The projects listed here are just a drop in the ocean of what can be done. Use them as a springboard for your own creative projects to make, create, and craft your way to a zero-waste lifestyle.