Just in time for the holidays, Ethan and Erin Hicks can teach you a great way to create imaginative gifts, save money and help the planet, all at the same time.
The teenage brother and sister from Concord are masters of upcycling, the art of transforming castoffs headed for the dumpster into beautiful and useful items, sometimes with little connection to their original use.
“We’re repurposing them instead of tossing them into the trash,” Erin said. “It’s more beneficial and more efficient.”
It’s a lot of fun, too.
Earlier this year, Erin, 12, and her brother, 13, taught a popular session in upcycling for students attending the Cabarrus County Fair. They demonstrated some of their own inventions, including how to transform a 3-liter soft drink bottle into a nifty automatic watering device for the flower or vegetable garden, and how to turn a castoff picture frame into an attractive tray for cosmetics and personal items.
Coached by their mom, Stacey Hicks, who also is their homeschool teacher, they work hard to find candidates for upcycling projects.
“In this economy, you have to be resourceful, and need a special eye in the thrift store,” Erin said. “But anyone can do it. You just have to roll up your sleeves and dig.”
Besides the upcyclable items themselves, the Hickses also suggest keeping some essential tools and materials on hand. Along with the basics such as string, strong tape and simple hand tools, Erin finds strong glue and paint very helpful.
“It is amazing to see what a little bit of paint can do,” she said.
A key resource of another kind is the popular do-it-yourself website Pinterest, which has a special section for upcyclers. The current “random upcycling ideas” page is filled with examples, from an old TV cabinet recycled into an upscale dog condo to a convincing coat of chain-mail armor created entirely from beverage can pop tabs.
The Charlotte area has a history of creative upcycling with artistic and philanthropic dimensions. Artist Edwin Gil used upcycled glass in his show “New Horizons: Upcycling” last summer. McColl Center guest artist Joan Bankemper of New York reassembled whimsical towers and birdhouses for the Edwin Tower garden using thrift-store ceramics smashed with a hammer.
Frances Hawthorne, longtime faculty member in UNC Charlotte’s Art Department, used recycled materials of all kinds in several different ways, working with homeless people to create a mural of memories for the Urban Ministry Center’s first garden.
A new Charlotte nonprofit, Upcycle Life, is creating handbags and other items using discarded plastic. The project is designed to provide work and income for people in need, particularly new immigrants to the U.S.
Upcycling now even has its own logo, a takeoff on the familiar recycling arrows, but with the top arrow headed off in a new direction.
Like familiar recycling programs, upcycling benefits the environment by reducing waste. But upcycling backers point to important differences. In recycling, materials such as metal, glass or plastics are typically ground up and processed into new raw materials, which then are reused in manufacturing.
That requires a lot of energy, and the recycled product may have limitations because of impurities. For instance, recycled plastic bags can be used to make plastic wood products, but not new bags.
Upcycling, however, does not require extensive reprocessing. In contrast, the original item may remain virtually unchanged, even if its new purpose is completely different.
For Nadine Ford and her colleagues at Mecklenburg County Wipe Out Waste, all those approaches are valid and important, especially around the holidays. They stress that reducing waste means doing (and not doing) a number of different things to create less waste, and they see upcycling as a valuable addition to the list.
“What I really like,” said Stacy Hicks, “is that you can actually make some things more useful!”
“I hope we were able to reach lots of people at the fair,” Erin saida. “Upcycling is a good thing for many reasons, and it’s infectiously creative and very fun.”