Upcycling: A citizen’s guide to creatively reducing landfill waste

Upcycling -- producing creative, high-end products from reusable waste -- has found a growing following in the city of late. Bhavani A P captures the trend and provides a primer for the beginner.

For most of us, typical cleaning sessions start with discarding our old and unwanted products from home. But what if you could convert old glass bottles to beautiful chandeliers or flower pots and jeans to bracelets? Would you still let go of it as easily? And what if I told you that by doing so, you would not only be honing your creative instincts but also doing a significant bit for the planet?

This, in fact, is the very seed of what is one of the most eco-friendly trends in the city today, called Upcycling. In simplest terms, upcycling is the process of turning our discarded items into usable products of good quality and aesthetics.

Little do we realize and think about the destination of our reusable waste products. Our beaches are fast becoming dump yards, our streets become nightmarish when it rains as the roadside garbage mixes with rainwater and sewage water making it difficult for residents to walk. Cows and other animals often meet their end by consuming the plastic and paper waste from the mixed waste lying on our street corners.

Upcycling could go a long way in addressing these problems by preventing colossal chunks of trash from ending up in our roads, beaches and landfills.

But isn’t that what we call ‘recycling’?

There is a thin line of difference between upcycling and recycling. For instance, if an old cola bottle is being sent back to the factory where it is sterilised, treated and filled with new cola, it is recycling. The same old cola bottle being repurposed, decorated and converted into a stylish or quirky vase or a decor item of superior aesthetic value is an example of upcycling, explains Anjali Venkat, an independent Chennai-based designer with more than two decades of experience in the domain.

Moreover, recycling often also involves reprocessing or demolition of the original discarded item with the resulting substance being the raw material for the new product, but that is rarely the case in upcycling.

“Each process has its own set of advantages and is equally important as it can reduce trash from going to the landfills,” adds Anjali.


Plastic bottles decorated with jute thread being used as decorative flower pots. Pic: Freeda Magdalin

Upcycling in the city

Over the past few years, Chennai has seen a growing interest in upcycling and a vibrant space where the practice is thriving in myriad ways. For many, it began just as a pastime.

“The seed of craft was sown during a competition when I was in Grade 4. While the rest of the participants were involved in making clichéd items, I wanted to do something different. I started looking for waste products in the vicinity which I could use to create something and that is how it all began. Now, I’m in college and my schedule is kind of tight, but I still make upcycled craft items as it rejuvenates my mind. I also see it as a way to reduce the amount of waste generated,” says Freeda Magdalin, a resident of Madambakkam.

Freeda also points out that it is not a very tall task. “Anyone can do that, all you need is a bit of creativity. Collect trash items, check on YouTube and as you learn from these, upcycling becomes easier. To begin with, one can make very pretty things using old newspapers, plastic and glass bottles which are available any time in our homes,” she adds.

The awareness about upcycled crafts and its benefits from a broader perspective has also opened up a new market for designers. This new breed of designers are involved in creating a sustainable future. Goli Soda, Upcykle (a part of Kabadiwalla Connect) and Anjali Designs are a few of the brands that sell, teach and promote upcycled products in Chennai.

Goli Soda, a shop in Besant Nagar, has given a new dimension to the art by selling upcycled quirky products such as newspaper bowls, newspaper pencils, coasters etc. “Much like everything else at Goli Soda, our story grew pretty organically too. It all started when I wanted to start a terrace garden. One thing led to another and we ended up with probably the first upcycling concept store in South India. It’s true, we have no competition yet,” said Sruti Harihara Subramanian, founder of Goli Soda.

“Many people are beginning to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle, as a reaction to the excess of past years. Upcycled products fit this need, and help people feel good about their buying choices. As for the products being made out of waste, we hope to change the perception of ‘waste’ itself through the process of repurposing and encourage people to see it as material, with untapped possibilities and potential. Through good design, we can make repurposed materials acquire a distinct charm,” feels Tanuja Ramani of Upcykle, a Chennai-based design studio dedicated to innovation using reclaimed and sustainable materials.

Talking about the commercial aspect of the art Anjali Venkat says, “The future does look bright and I think today more people are open to making and buying upcycled products. Awareness about taking care of the environment is definitely increasing. The problem, however, often lies with the artisan/upcycler and I feel about this very strongly. Shoddily made products, badly designed and badly finished products are often offered in the markets in the name of eco-friendly, organic, upcycled, handmade products, which I feel is just an excuse for badly-fabricated work.”

What can be upcycled?

There are broadly five types of reusable waste — paper, plastic, metal, glass and electronic waste. Aravind, Head of Operations, Paperman explains, “Among these five categories, paper and metal can be recycled as their value will not be lost. For instance, if you recycle paper of 130 gsm (grams per square metre, indicating the quality), the resultant paper will also possess the same specifications. Thus used or discarded paper can either be recycled or upcycled, and it is the user who has to decide. The same is true of metal and coloured glass. Transparent glass can be upcycled due to its thickness, but coloured glass bottles are not as thick when compared to the former; if upcycled, they have higher chances of breaking which could make it difficult to recycle them later. However, as far as plastic is concerned, it is definitely advised to upcycle them, for if recycled, Grade 3 plastic degenerates to Grade 2 and Grade 2 to Grade 1.”

Opportunities in the city

Dimensional Mosaic workshop by Anjali Designs on 28, 29 and 30th December, 2016

Time: 11.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m.

Fee: Rs 7500

Venue: Flat No. 10, Sree Lakshmi Apartments, No. 1, 10th Cross Street,  Shastri Nagar, Adyar,            Chennai-600029

For details, visit https://www.facebook.com/anjalidesignglass/

Workshops at Upcycle Artz (as per the learner’s requirements)

Contact details: upcycleartz@gmail.com, www.facebook.com/upcycleartz


  1. Bala says:

    Superb write, informative!

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