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Upcycling breathes new life into waste

Lenny and Heather Gallant make a living from garbage.

The couple run BirdMouse eco-furniture from their home in Souris, PEI. They turn salvaged materials, cast-offs and reclaimed wood into one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture.

“I don’t think we’ve ever paid for any of our materials. PEI is great for this because everyone knows what everyone else is doing and who is tearing what barn down,” says Lenny, a 37-year-old who previously worked for a solar energy company in Alberta.

The Gallants are part of a global movement known as ‘upcycling’. It’s recycling with a twist – taking discarded objects and giving them a new lease on life. And it’s the counterpoint to ‘downcycling’, which is the process of creating waste into a lesser quality product.

Upcyling, for the Gallants, started while the couple was living in Edmonton. After long days working at their corporate jobs, they would venture out for walks in the back alleys of their neighbourhood. Often, they would find objects in the garbage that caught their eyes. “We brought a few things home and sanded them down and put them in our house,” Lenny recalls. Since moving east in 2012, the hobby has become a business.

Repurposing is, admittedly, not a new idea. “My mother has been doing this her whole life,” says Lenny. “She’s just been using whatever is around to be whatever it needs to be at that point. She didn’t do it as a business – she just did it to get by.”

For a younger generation, however, the modern repurposing movement is seemingly less motivated by need than it is by a desire to do something good for the planet, while also bringing creative artistry to the execution.

Thanks to social networking and sharing sites such as Pinterest, there is no lack of ideas when it comes to new uses for old things. Showing off creativity serves as the catalyst for others to find inspiration for their own upcycling pursuits.

Wine corks upcycled into planters that double as fridge magnets. (Photo Credit: Upcycle That)

Wine corks upcycled into planters that double as fridge magnets. (Photo Credit: Upcycle That)

That’s something Judy Rom and Jacques Karsten know quite well. They moderate and curate Upcycle That, which captures the spirit and imagination of upcyclers around the world.

“People have always been resourceful, but what’s great about upcycling is that it makes people think about what they have differently. So they might look at an object and rather than think it is waste, they see it as something of value,” says Rom, a 26-year-old South African-Canadian who grew up in Vancouver and now lives in Cape Town.

For Rom, upcyling is at its best when it allows for the reuse of a rare and beautiful item that has outlived its original purpose, making it more valuable than it was before. “That has a real artfulness to it,” she says.

Upcyclers often approach vintage objects with a particular reverence, since they know those objects will never be made again. Rom says she is currently debating whether to convert a vintage suitcase into a table, as she is reluctant to “mess with it,” as she puts it.

But upcycling is not only limited to antique and rare items. Many upcycling projects put common household items to new use: wine corks are used as planters for succulents, egg cartons are used to create a unique string of lights, and plastic soda bottles are put to work as a beautiful vertical garden.

“These things are going to be around anyway,” Rom says. “You can throw them in the garbage and pretend they’ll go away, but they won’t. So if we can use what’s around and make it into something new, that benefits everyone.”

The aim of Upcycle That, which launched in 2012, is to showcase what other people are doing and share ideas for how to use items around you. “The more you see others doing it, the more you get ideas yourself,” Rom says.

This upcycled bicycle bathroom vanity is featured in Retrash. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Retrash/Nathan Devine)

This upcycled bicycle bathroom vanity is featured in Retrash. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Retrash/Nathan Devine)

Another project aiming to highlight creative upcycling ideas launched just last week. Retrash is conceived as a coffee table book featuring over 80 upcycled projects from around the world. It is the brainchild of Nathan Devine, a photographer and graphic designer who lives in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, Australia.

“I am definitely passionate about being more sustainable, reducing waste, [and] living locally,” says the 37-year-old father of two small children. “I started with a website three years ago and then I started connecting with a few people and now I’ve been getting these emails and seeing what people are doing and I had the idea to turn it into a book.”

Devine launched a Kickstarter on 10 November to raise $33,400 – enough to print 5,000 copies of the book. The book features projects from around the world – from Argentina to Malaysia – with a total of 21 countries represented.

“It’s meant as an inspirational piece,” Devine says. “There are a lot of books out there that show you how to upcycle and how to recycle, but this is more a book about inspiring people.”

To that end, each entry in the book features the story behind the creator, detailing why they do what they do, where they source their materials, and the ideas behind why they reuse waste.

For Devine, upcycling started in childhood, when he would accompany his father on regular trips to the garbage dump as part of the family business. He started off by bringing home some small black-and-white televisions, which he cleaned up and sold for pocket money.

“That started me thinking that waste can be reused, and that there is value in waste.”

The only investment required in starting an upcycling project is some imagination and some elbow grease. South African-Canadian Rom says the best way to get started is to identify something in your house that you like, but no longer have a purpose for. “Think of what else it can be,” she advises. “The web is a great place for inspiration.”

Lenny Gallant made an old, unwanted pump organ into an elegant writing desk. (Photo Credit: BirdMouse.ca)

Lenny Gallant made an old, unwanted pump organ into an elegant writing desk. (Photo Credit: BirdMouse.ca)

On PEI, Lenny Gallant found inspiration in an old pump organ that a neighbour no longer wanted. “She wanted it out because she wanted more room in her house, but she also didn’t want it destroyed because it’s a really cool old thing,” he says. With a few alterations and a gutting of the organ mechanisms, Gallant converted the old instrument into an elegant desk.

Once the first desk was complete, the Gallants started realizing there must be many more unwanted organs and pianos cluttering up living rooms across PEI. They have now launched the BirdMouse Organ Donor Card – donate your old organ or piano and receive a lifelong discount.

“We did our neighbour a favour, she did us a favour,” he says. “Now there’s something cool in the world that wasn’t there before.”

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