Marc Gaudin likes to leave the bullets in. Keri Piehl doesn’t wash her spoons. Leela Brightenburg thinks trash can change the world. Flux looks at the growing trend of upcycling.
Running her fingers along the sides of a clear plastic tub, Crystal Chaffin peers over the edge, as if memorizing its contents. She wrinkles her brow and drums her fingers against the cracked plastic — rata-tat-tat! — scrutinizing the mound of old microfiche. Something in the heap catches her eye and her fingers stop tapping against the tub’s translucent surface. She grins and bites her lip, restraining a squeak of excitement as her right hand dives into the pile and disappears among the bits of brown, black, and sepia film. Her hand returns to the surface in a millisecond, clutching its prize. She holds the microfiche close to the light, inspecting the image. It’s a hot dog.
“This one is from the seventies,” says Chaffin, beaming with excitement as if she discovered a winning lottery ticket before carefully placing the square of film in the child seat of her shopping cart.
Crowded between the walls of the short, narrow aisle, Chaffin’s cart leaves little room for fellow shoppers to browse the shelves stocked with scratched CDs, empty tennis ball containers, and three decades’ worth of National Geographic magazines. A left turn at the end at the aisle leads to an open space stockpiled with second-hand craft supplies. Six giant cylindrical bins are lined up in the center of the space, standing by to provide customers with an assortment of random items. Stretchy rings for a dime. Wine corks for a quarter. One of the bins displays a large, hand-written message in thick, black Sharpie: “Packing materials. Please refrain from popping the bubble wrap.”
But none of those materials will suit Chaffin’s project. What started out as a way to save money on Christmas gifts for her nieces and nephews soon turned into commissioned works for her friends and co-workers. Using mostly used fabric and other soft textiles, she makes stuffed robots — the microfiches are their “motherboards.”
“I’m hoping to start a website soon to more easily sell them. And I want to try using new materials, too,” Chaffin says, gesturing toward her shopping cart, which is full of bent coat hangers. “But that’s why this place is so great. You can find so much random stuff.”
Chaffin is a patron of the Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP), a Portland-based non-profit organization that sells used craft materials while promoting the idea of creative reuse. Also known as “upcycling,” creative reuse is the process of transforming one or several discarded items into a new product. Whether the end product is beautiful or utilitarian is up to the individual, says SCRAP education coordinator Keri Piehl. The key element is a union of sustainability and creativity.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle. There’s a reason reuse comes before recycle in that series — it’s more important,” Piehl says. “Anyone can recycle. But reusing requires you to push your imagination in response to the materials available to you.”
With the overwhelming production of municipal solid waste in the United States and other developed countries, it would seem there is no end the materials available. The Department of Health and Environmental Control defines municipal solid waste (MSW) as “household trash or garbage” and details that the majority of MSW is recyclable.
Yet much of what can be salvaged or recycled is simply discarded. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the annual production of MSW in the United States has tripled in the last fifty years from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to 249.9 million tons in 2010.
In response, major cities have enacted laws to curtail waste production, while national corporations have organized campaigns enticing consumers to behave more sustainably. Styrofoam products have been banned in Berkeley, Seattle, and Portland since 2008. Last year, Best Buy and Staples began offering gift cards and cash incentives for customers who participate in electronic recycling programs.
Other countries have also joined the war on trash. When Ireland implemented a thirty-three-cent tax on plastic bags in 2002, usage dropped 94 percent. In France, they’re not even an option.
According to Leela Brightenburg, it still isn’t enough.
“Our culture has been developing this mentality of ‘cheap and quick means better’ for a long time, so it’s going to be hard to shift back,” says Brightenburg, co-owner and designer at the interior and graphic design firm, Bright Design Lab. “But every little piece helps change the world.”
Like Brightenburg — who is contracted by remodeling contractor Hammer & Hand to design upcycled furniture out of old barn doors, high school lockers, and college stadium bleachers — other people are beginning to take the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” to a new extreme.
Most notable among upcycling circles in recent months is Pinterest, a social networking site that allows users to post images about hobbies that interest them. Officially called an “online pin board,” the site includes hundreds of crafts with a creative reuse component. When Time magazine listed Pinterest among the “50 Best Websites of 2011,” Pinterest’s web traffic exploded. Making light fixtures out of wine bottles and abstract art out of melted crayons soon became a national sensation.
“Some things are just garbage, like a used Band-Aid or snotty Kleenex. But everything else always has a possibility in it,” says Piehl, who makes light fixtures for SCRAP’s retail store out of bike helmets, old photographs, and gelato spoons. “And it’s always more rewarding and satisfying because of that transformation from garbage to gem.”
Kelley Carmichael Casey, executive director at SCRAP, calls upcycling an innovative and cutting edge trend that’s seeping into the national value system.
“When you have an idea this good and this useful, it grows and infiltrates the community at large,” Carmichael Casey says.
From scraps of fabric to scrap wood, the importance of reuse is an ever-present theme for Oregon artisans. Marc Gaudin, founder and owner of The Joinery, a wooden furniture business, directs his craftsmen to save excess items that remain after furniture production.
“Our culture has been developing this mentality of ‘cheap and quick means better’ for a long time, so it’s going to be hard to shift back. But every little piece helps change the world.”
The wood shavings are collected and put into a machine that turns them into fire briquettes. The machine, which cost approximately $25,000 and stands as tall as the building’s workshop, prevents hundreds of tons of useless wood shavings from being sent to landfills each year. Since buying the briquette machine, The Joinery has been able to reduce their number of dumpsters to one.
“It will take a long time to pay itself off, if it ever will,” says Gaudin of the enormous machine, “but it’s environmentally correct.”
Larger pieces that aren’t viable for briquette use are collected and turned into upcycled products. These leftovers, commonly called “off falls,” are usually about the size of a butcher knife. Most of the pieces are destined to become cutting boards, which cost at least $100 each. Gaudin says students and local school representatives often approach him about selling his items at fundraiser auctions. In response, Gaudin makes it a practice to donate at least two cutting boards free of charge.
The largest pieces, however, are saved for a higher purpose than kitchenware. Using an “Idea Book” — which contains sketches, magazine clippings, and Internet images — Gaudin and his team design pieces that merge the practicality of furniture with the apparent uselessness of wood scraps. Once displayed in the show room, the scrap furniture is nearly indecipherable from standard furniture designs.
“We needed to take what we already had in the shop, already sitting right next to the saws, and turn it into more products,” Gaudin says. “Plus, it helps us stay neat, organized, and tidy. We’re more efficient when we’re lean and green.”
Equally important to Gaudin is the character and the story behind his furniture. His upcycled furniture contains small details such as imprints from old nails and screws. Occasionally, plywood comes into the shop embedded with bullets, which Gaudin prefers to keep.
“They’re from people out in the woods doing target practice on a random tree,” he explains. “And when it gets to us, it can become someone else’s conversation starter.”
Random projectiles add a unique touch to furniture at The Joinery, but Gaudin says it’s the greenness of upcycling that makes customers happy with their purchase.
“The perception of something so small costing so much, like a scrap end table, is a hard idea to sell,” he says. “But people respond to the fact that we’re reinventing the wheel.”
The wheel of consumption, that is.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle is a great start, but even that just contributes to the degradation of the environment,” says Bright Design Labs co-founder Leela Brightenburg. “By upcycling, you’re taking something out of that wheel and that cycle to give it a higher purpose.”
According to Pheil, a self-proclaimed “rabid missionary” of SCRAP who convinces non-believers of the benefits of upcycling, that higher purpose is sometimes as simple as aesthetics.
“Even if upcycling doesn’t result in something useful for the whole world,” she says, “it still creates beauty for the individual creator.”
“Reduce, reuse, recycle. There’s a reason reuse comes before recycle in that series — it’s more important. Anyone can recycle. But reusing requires you to push your imagination in response to the materials available to you.”