Added commentary by Hannah Russell
Kali: Waste Not Want Not was an Earth Fest event organized by the University of Idaho’s Sustainability Center that is dedicated to introducing, and in some cases re-introducing, the concept of upcycling to University of Idaho students, teachers, faculty and those within the surrounding community of Moscow. Hannah Russell and I were asked to participate in order to emphasize the cultural components involved in upcycling.
Hannah: This was a really fun project and turned out to be quite collaborative. Not only did we work with the Sustainability Center, I also had the opportunity to interview U of I faculty in the History Department (Dr. Adam Sowards), in the Art and Architecture Department (Wendy McClure), and faculty in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (Dr. Lee Sappington and Dr. Priscilla Wegars). It was really insightful to learn about different cultural aspects of upcycling and reuse from these individuals, and to support an event that highlights human creativity and ingenuity!
The project also offered a great way to get out into the community to see how upcycling and reuse have been incorporated into the fabric of Moscow over the years. I found excellent examples of repurposed buildings (like the 1912 Center, an old high school converted into a community center) and materials for the use in construction of new structures (such as an old dug out structure built using old railroad ties), artistic upcycling ( for example, a wine bottle holder made out of horse shoes and rebar), and other practical forms of upcycling as well.
Some of my favorite upcycled staples around Moscow were the bike racks. As it happens, there are a lot of upcycled bike racks made out of old bikes, or, in one case, made out of bed frames! It was really great to see how creative the city and local businesses have been in accommodating bikes, as being a university town Moscow is a very bike-friendly place.
What is upcycling?
Unlike recycling where a materials composition is reduced to a chemical state and then combined with other materials to make a new product, upcycling is the re-use or re-purpose of materials in their original form and in some cases by physically altering the materials (cutting, gluing, etc.) in order to create something new. For example, instead of taking your soda pop bottle to the recycling center where eventually a new plastic container can be made later, you instead make it into a home planter.
How is upcycling cultural?
There are many examples of upcycling being used to create cultural materials throughout history. During colonial periods many indigenous populations incorporated parts of new materials from settlers, such as tin cans or beads, onto their regalia. In many cases, this was a way to keep cultural traditions alive when faced with a lack of materials due to either restricted access or competition of resources. Socioeconomics lead most people in the United States during the Great Depression to make the most out of every item they had; glass bottles, wood scraps, and tin containers were all repurposed several times over, and when they could no longer serve their original function the parts were upcycled into things like: glass bottle bottom decorators for flower beds, melted down metal scrap weapons, tin patches for machines and structures, wood patched roofs, clothes from fabrics (such as curtains or sheets) and boot strap book holders, among many others.
Today, during a recession we see the same shift within micro-economies trying to get as much out of an item as possible. In many respects, this flies in the face of the “consumerism” ideals our society has been built around, especially within the increased emphasis of convenience marketing for products over the last 30 years. Locally, people are taking advantage of basic materials by upcycling things rather than recycling them (or worse still, just tossing them out). For example, those in the gardening community are turning broken tea pots into decorative planters or even bird feeders, those in the home are using soup cans to make office pen/pencil organizers, and outdoor lovers are using old bike tubes to make wallets.
You always hear about the Re-: recycling, reusing, and repurposing, but, in fact, many of the aspects for those actions crossover into upcycling, and yes it has a name. Upcycling is as much a part of contemporary culture today as it has been throughout history. It can reflect a shift in cultural values and/or it can be a reflection of socio-economic structures within a society. Upcycling and culture can, and do, go hand-in-hand.
Hannah: It was a lot of fun putting together all of the materials for this event and being able to share it with the UI community. While the UI Sustainability Center set up project stations for students to come and make their own quick upcycled projects, Kali and I made a number of more time-consuming upcycled items for display and raffle. Probably the most fun (and time-consuming) thing that I made were a pair of shoes made from an old sun faded corduroy skirt, old holey jeans, and a busted out bike tire tube (bike parts apparently lend themselves well to upcycled projects). Kali, you made a lot of really neat projects for the event.
Kali: Yes, one of the more interesting projects was an upcycled trashcan from old magazines, which took a lot of time, but was my favorite project. Also, another big hit with the visitors were the lunch pails upcycled out of milk jugs. Other projects included: decorative dessert stands, soup can and glass jar office organizers, and tee-shirt scarves. All of these projects can be found on the Anthropology Graduate Student Committee’s Pintrest site, in case you want to replicate them
Most importantly, we would like to thank the UI Sustainability Center for the invitation to partner with them for this event, the UI faculty/staff video participants for their time and effort, and all those who came to and participated in this Earth Fest event.