Upcycling has become a very trendy word recently, and often you see pictures of pieces of furniture that have been revitalised by paint, often decorated with flowers etc, that suddenly become unrecognisable from the original. In fact, The Husband picked up a couple of old wooden chairs at a boot sale a while back, with a view to upcycling them himself.
Usually, the term upcycling refers to ‘creative re-use’, where one item becomes something totally different – I just read about a ladder being transformed into book-shelving, and skateboard parts into trendy jewellery, and of course an old favourite from my youth – wine bottle into candle holder – chianti bottles, in particular, being much sought-after for this purpose!
Repurposing is another word for it, being the use of one item being made into something else, usually for a purpose unintended by the original manufacturer, and typically would be something destined for the rubbish bin. Examples of this would be a broken rake turned on its head and the prongs used as a coatrack, old tyres for playground equipment or chopped up tyres to make an excellent base for horse arenas. Plastic bottles can be repurposed in inventive ways too, for example, poked into the gaps in concrete blocks for insulation. How about tires as boat fenders and plastic drums as feeding troughs and/or composting bins? What about farmers using old baths for water troughs for their animals? These items were not manufactured for these purposes. How about worn out clothes as rags – haven’t we all done that, repurposed an old t-shirt into a duster or a polishing rag for the car? Sadly in poorer countries it’s been happening for years, where bits of plastic sheeting, corrugated iron and wooden pallets that were clearly designed for some other purpose are cleverly fashioned into desperately needed rudimentary homes. I discovered that even old flip- flops can be recycled by a company founded by a marine biologist, who accepts shipments of flip-flops from around the world and recycles them into colourful, handmade pieces, including art, jewellery, and toys.
And it’s not just confined to these uses. How about musical instruments? As kids, we made maracas from pebbles or dried beans sealed in yoghurt pots and turned a saucepan upside down for a drum. Steel drums or steel pans came to mind, and when I looked into this, I discovered steel pans were created in Trinidad in the 1930s, but steel pan history can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands during the 1700s. A guy called Winston ‘Spree’ Simon is credited with creating the first ‘melody pan’ which carried eight pitches, and was the first pan that could accommodate an entire melody.
The metal pan players discovered that the raised areas of the metal containers made a different sound to those areas that were flat, and through experimentation, coincidence, trial and error, the metal pan bands evolved into the steel pan family of instruments we know today.
A prominent example of musical instrument upcycling is the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay. All the instruments of the orchestra are made from materials taken from the landfill of Asunción, the Cateura lagoon in the area, an extremely unhealthy place for youngsters to live and play, with poverty and lack of education being a bad combination for the children’s future. But the children have been brought together to play musical instruments made from scrap materials!
Old water pipes become saxophones. Forks, knives, spoons and coins become the keys. Cans and bake trays are used to make violins, and percussion drums are made with X-rays and wooden pallets or trash cans.
The orchestra has performed internationally with Stevie Wonder and the American heavy-metal bands Metallica and Megadeth. How cool is that?