The Passion Of The Upcycler

Published on 15 Jul 2016 . 4 min read

Last month, toxic running tracks in a school in Beijing made several children ill. The ‘upcycled’ tracks had been constructed of industrial plastic waste and rubber. While this was a case of negligence, upcycling need not always be so.

Take the art of Subodh Gupta. His stainless steel installations may not be everyone’s cup of tea. And strictly speaking, he doesn’t recycle–his components are spanking new. Nevertheless, it’s an innovative repurposing of a commonplace object.

Upcycling is nothing new for the mothers of the 1970s (and by implication, the mothers before them) who would be astonished to learn that so much time and space is devoted to it. In the pre-liberalisation days of 1991, when money was precious and things were scarce, socks became hand puppets, old cushion covers became doormats, an old sheet became many dusters and a pretty frock got a fresh lease of life as an apron.

Once, my mother had pieced together a tea-cozy (those quilted teapot covers which are now history) by folding leftover cloth into small rectangles, then stitching them over the two large semicircles. It looked really sweet, like a hedgehog that had rolled in a rainbow.

Any household is littered with things unused, disused, underused. My husband converted an old whisky tumbler into a toothbrush holder. My oversize coffee mugs now house money plants. Often, old shoes can serve the same purpose. I have even created a micro planter out of a coconut shell and it looks lovely, besides being ecologically correct. And my favourite–a wine glass that is now home to a money plant! Over a period moss has collected on the walls, and this nourishes the plant. People have created a teacup birdfeeder, mesh earring organizer, a flower vase for a dry arrangement out of a cylindrical whisky bottle case.

Bulbs can be pots and pots can be lampshades. Spoons and forks reinvent themselves to become the handles of drawers, and if you have a machine that will bend them, they make excellent and interesting hooks and pegs. Some things go wrong, of course. The leather on a classic pair of white pumps shoes was cracking. So I got me a bottle of black oil paint, painted over, and wore it to a party only to discover that the paint will crack in the exact same place as the leather.

Oh well, you live and learn! That’s one of the joys of reworking things. You don’t mind so much if it flops; you would, however, be miserable if a brand new pair of shoes became unwearable.

We mostly balk at recycling or upcycling, because it means there is some work to be done. Stitching, gluing, parting, and joining!! Well, yes, sometimes, but it can be great fun. It was great to watch, on a YouTube video, a man’s formal blazer become a jacket AND a skirt. Not only does the object/material not languish wastefully, it gives one the glow of creation and the joy of using something different.

The thriving cottage and micro industries in India do such a great job. A rug woven out of waste cotton and nylon snippets stayed with me for fifteen years. What’s more, it was light and washable, and needless to say, pretty.

Upcycling is a great family project for rainy days. Convert that pretty tricycle into an outdoor installation, decorate it with flowers or place pots on it. Strip and scrub and paint that old piece of furniture. Make a home for your pup or cat in the shell of an old TV cabinet, or even a drawer.

Netizens are happily sharing their activities and upcycling success stories on YouTube and on blogs. One common feature is that they all are enthusiastic ‘garbage hunters’.

Author Rhiti Bose says, “The 'purono ketli' gets a facelift! I think I went a bit overboard with the colours...Might use it as a flowerpot or something else, don't know yet.”

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Madhuri Maitra
Madhuri Maitra published her first two books in 2014. Haiku and other Micropoetry is a collection of short verse on nature, love and life; while Equinox is a novel dealing with urban realities. Madhuri lives in Pune and teaches Film Appreciation in addition to Creative Writing. She also conducts workshops for children and adults. Read more on her website .

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