Trash. It’s something we all produce, and much of it seems inevitable. But there are some folks out there who look at trash and see opportunity—for new products, creative businesses, and fresh ways of thinking.
With Earth Day around the corner, and in honor of A Day Without Waste on April 9 (an initiative co-sponsored by EKOCYCLE), here are five retail shops, two online and three scattered across the country, that celebrate the art of upcycling—using discarded and reclaimed materials to make clever new accessories, housewares and gifts. Hats off to these makers and shop owners who inspire everyone to view the stuff around them from a new perspective.
1. Upcycled (Missoula, Montana)
A few years ago, Donovan Peterson was at a holiday shopping event featuring local Missoula artists. The organizer mentioned that she thought it would be great to continue selling similar work after the holidays in a new space and wondered out loud if perhaps Peterson should start such a store. A maker himself, he jumped at the idea. “It took me all of 10 seconds to say yes,” says Peterson.
Three busy weeks later, Upcycled was open, selling the work of 18 local artists. Today, 53 makers are represented in the long, narrow space in the center of Missoula’s “Hip Strip,” a highly foot-trafficked neighborhood across the river from downtown.
Peterson explains that the positive impacts of upcycling are twofold. “It’s great to keep things out of the landfills,” he says, “but upcycling also keeps new materials from being extracted from the environment.” To do his part, Peterson makes wallets, belts and accessories out of old bicycle inner tubes for his business Upline Redesign. Other popular products in the shop include Jax Hats (caps made from used sweaters) and skirts from REcreate Designs. Coca-Cola fans enjoy Coke can earrings and ornaments made by Rose of Sharon LLC.
If you visit the store, you might notice visitors dropping off empty cereal boxes, which Upcycled uses for signage, tags, and other printed materials. The shop also partakes in the neighborhood’s “First Friday” events. Staying open late, the store hosts an artist or offers a class. But Peterson’s goal is for Upcycled to be a source of education and inspiration for visitors every day. “On any given day, we do random acts of upcycling,” he says.
2. Pop-Cycle (Tucson, Arizona)
Pop-Cycle inhabits a 19th Century brick building on 4th Avenue, a historic district in Tucson. A family endeavor, the shop is owned by Jennifer Radler and her sister, DeeDee Koenen, and sister-in-law, Shannon Riggs. The funky shop specializes in quirky local products, including reclaimed metal robot banks from Voigt Metal and coasters made from cardboard Coca-Cola boxes, which are made in-house.
Before opening the shop in 2008, all three women used recycled materials in their own artwork. Radler sews monster-themed accessories from recycled clothing via Monster Booty Threads; and Riggs and Koenen make photographic plaques on reclaimed wood through DDco Design. (Both brands are big sellers at Pop-Cycle.)
As the three women were looking for studio space, a retail space in a building owned by Radler and Koenen’s parents became available. They jumped at the opportunity to open a store that sold only products made from re-purposed materials. The business took off even faster than the owners dreamed. Even though they launched Pop-Cycle right before the economic downturn, they quickly found an eager and receptive customer base. The store even inspired local artists to start using more reclaimed materials in their products, just so they could be included in the store.
“What’s really cool about it is we have about a hundred locals that make things for the store, so it really supports our community,” says Radler. “We feel really lucky that we have a place where artists can show their work and supplement their income.”
3. Foundry (Asheville, N.C.)
Foundry was opened in 2010 by Shelly Piper and Natalie Hood, friends who were looking for a career change, but who also wanted to do some good in the world. “We were talking about opening a store, but the problem always seems to be that everybody already has enough stuff,” says Piper. But having grown up in crafty families, the idea of selling “stuff made out of other stuff” was appealing to the duo.
The cozy shop, which shares a block with other local businesses on the edge of downtown Asheville, features display fixtures built by Hood, who modified vintage doors and furniture pieces to create shelves and racks. She also takes charge of crafting the shop’s stunning window displays.
Piper says that 75 percent of Foundry’s inventory is made in western North Carolina, and 95 percent is made in the USA. Customers are delighted by the buried treasure candles from Big Dipper Candles, which are made from the ends of used candles; and Art from Empties’ pendant necklaces, made from reclaimed glass bottles. Foundry also sells a selection of inventory via its online store.
“To us, upcycling means improving something rather than just recycling it,” says Piper. “We feel like it makes people think about what’s around them and what they could use in a different way.” And while Foundry is focused on items and products, Piper points out that what upcycling is really about is creativity. “It’s important to be creative in your life in general,” she says, “and to exercise that part of your brain.”
4. Hipcycle (hipcycle.com)
Andrew Sell launched Hipcycle in 2011 with dual goals. First, he wanted to use the power of business to drive environmental change. And second, after finding upcycled products here and there, he wanted to create an online shop that brought together the best of them, all in one place. “People don’t want to buy a product just because it’s recycled,” Sell says, “but hopefully the notion of it being greener is a tie breaker.”
At Hipcycle.com, shoppers can browse over 600 products by category (housewares, furniture, jewelry, etc.) or by material (bike parts, e-waste, railroad parts, etc.) One of Sell’s favorite products is a bowl made from bike chains. Other popular items include wine bottle glassware, as well as products crafted from vintage housing materials, like reclaimed wood picture frames. Coke fans enjoy their Coca-Cola juice glass set and Coca-Cola bottle rings.
Sell stresses that the concept of upcycling seems new, but has really been around for generations.“My grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, would re-use everything. Then it was economic rather than environmentally driven. But now it’s about keeping stuff out of the landfills and raising awareness about our planet.”
5. Upcycled Around Town (upcycledaroundtown.com)
The owner of Upcycled Around Town, remembers exactly when the idea came to her. A few years ago, while Bhairvee Shavdia was living in New York City, a snowstorm hit that prevented the sanitation department from picking up trash for a few days. Watching the trash bags pile up on the sidewalk was a sobering reminder of how much garbage is produced every day. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe there’s this much stuff being thrown out,’” says Shavdia. “In spite of recycling efforts, a lot is still ending up in landfills.” The experience inspired her to explore what she could do to bring awareness to the concept of reuse.
After searching out vendors that created products from discarded materials, she launched Upcycled Around Town in 2011 with co-owner Manish Desai. Soon, vendors were coming to her, eager to sell their wares through the site after finding a dearth of outlets for their products. Now based in southern California, UpcycledAroundTown.com features around 500 items, with a focus on housewares, bags, and accessories. Popular items include custom-made coin rings and wall clocks constructed from bicycle chain rings and vinyl records.
As she runs her business, Shavdia enjoys using the portfolios and laptop cases made from vinyl billboard signs. But above all, for this entrepreneur, Upcycled Around Town is an outlet for using her skills to make the world a better place. “My goal is to get people to see what they have in a new light,” she says. “Just because I don’t need something any more doesn’t mean I can’t reuse it.”
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