The Upside of Reusing

The growing trend of 'upcycling' gives old materials new life

Apr 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm


etting ready to toss that candy wrapper in the trash? Or maybe that old bicycle tire? It’s garbage, right? Just waste in transit from your receptacle to an enormous landfill. Think again — your discarded rubbish can take on an entirely new existence in the form of a different and improved entity. A process called “upcycling” is the repurposing of waste items into new products with a higher environmental value. A number of Cincinnati businesses and creative residents are embracing this trend, creating something useful from what would otherwise be considered refuse.

Unlike “downcycling,” which converts waste materials into products or new materials of lesser quality, upcycling actually reinvents the waste items into something of greater value. To get a variety of visuals, simply visit Fabricate (4037 Hamilton Ave., Northside, Co-owner Aileen McGrath says the store features only hand-made products, including many upcycled items. She says artists and designers have become incredibly creative in designing pieces such as purses and bags made from vintage fabrics and farm feed sacks. There’s also jewelry constructed from old typewriter parts, watch parts, vintage buttons and old bifocal lenses, end tables with crushed glass and concrete legs, journals made from recycled paper and a wine stopper made from vintage billiard balls. She says patrons often croon about items in the store, especially after they recognize the reused material.

“I also love that our store gets the creative flowing in others,” McGrath says. “When people see the awesome things that our artists are making, they get inspired to go home and make things themselves with stuff they have just laying around. It carries forward the whole cycle of reusing things that already exists in new and fun ways.”

Many upcyclers turn to sites such as Etsy ( to market their products. Etsy features an array of designers selling thousands of upcycled items ranging from furniture made of old dynamite crates to notebooks made from cereal boxes to purses made using discarded Skittles and M&M’s wrappers.

Uniquely Upcycled owner and designer Kate Dignan sells her wares at craft shows and at local retailers such as Park and Vine and Fabricate. She says she began upcycling after inheriting her grandmother’s 1950s sewing machine. Financial constraints combined with concerns for the environment inevitably turned her toward fabric remnants and cast-off clothing. Her line consists of handbags, embellished clothing, hand-painted home goods, stitched cards, yoga mats, pillows and stuffed animals. Her designs emit a bohemian flare combined with a subtle sense of déja vu. As a burgeoning designer, she says Cincinnati shop owners and patrons alike have been incredibly accommodating and supportive.

“I love explaining to people what the items I make were in a previous life, and we often talk about all the waste that can be produced in a ‘throwaway’ society,” she says. “The craft shows that I’ve done really allowed me to get good feedback from people and talk about all the great ways anyone can repurpose things and make them useful in a different manner.”

As an avid cyclist, Philadelphia resident Carrie Collins says she saw a void in the market in terms of sustainable quality products for practical use. To address that need, she opened Fabric Horse in 2004 ( The product line features utilitarian cycling accessories and urban gear, including backpacks, utility belts, lock holsters, accessories and some clothing.

Collins says it’s simply not enough for her products to be eco-friendly; they also must utilize a practical, durable design. To retrieve materials, she gathers items such as seatbelts and metals from junkyards and cast-off scraps from textile manufacturers or remnant stores. Collins says the response to Fabric Horse has been so positive she plans to open her first brick-and-mortar store in Philly sometime in April. Inspiration for the business came while Collins was majoring in Industrial Design at UC’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning.

“It’s kind of what I did on my own time,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do with clothing or anything I made for myself — I had learned sustainability in school … and it just felt like the only thing to do — the right thing to do.”

Known to be Cincinnati’s eco-headquarters, Park and Vine (1202 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, features a number of upcycled products including those from both Dignan and Collins. Owner Dan Korman says the lackluster economy might be the force driving many new upcyclers as a means to create an alternative source of income. He says he’s seen the trend grow in popularity during the last few years with a wide variety of new products gracing his shelves. He says while people don’t come in specifically in search of upcycled items, they’re obviously intrigued by the products.

While the store does feature some simply aesthetic upcycled items, Korman says the more useful products tend to sell better. He says the store’s customers tend to gravitate toward utilitarian items as opposed to decorative — the more useful, the better. He says Park and Vine continuously “cycles” new items in and out, a stark contrast from a few years ago when the store featured one sole upcycled product, flip flops made from old bicycle tires.

“Hopefully upcycling’s here to stay,” Korman says. “It gives people an outlet to express themselves by creating something that is useful, and it’s giving materials a second and sometimes even a third shot a life.”

[Check out CityBeat's full 2011 Green Issue here.]