Upcycling: 3 common throwaways with endless potential

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | November 5, 2013

Imagine a home where the table runners are made of old book pages and the floral arrangements are rosettes of recycled roadmaps. Why not? Today's electronic books and mobile GPS are making those printed relics of yesteryear ripe for repurposing. And who doesn't want to keep a lid on decorating expenses?

Upcycling -- the act of turning trash into treasures by repurposing it into something entirely new and either practical or pleasing -- is making a big comeback thanks to the Great Recession's economic constraints on consumerism and concerns about the environment. "Waste not, want not," was a popular expression in your great-grandmother's day, and that advice is back in vogue.

The variety of throwaway objects crafters are upcycling is amazing: plastic bags braided into colorful hampers; paper grocery bags woven into baskets; favorite but unworn concert t-shirts transformed into throw pillows. And that's nothing compared to what DIYers are doing with larger salvaged items: a 1970s console TV finds new life as an aquarium; old doors nailed together form a garden shed; and a baby grand piano functions as a wall shelf or even a garden fountain.

Upcycled crafts: a dangerous endeavor?

Wooden pallets have become an especially trendy resource for upcycled projects. But pallets are often sprayed with fungicides and pesticides, and some have been exposed to moisture. Others harbor insects, vermin, and even deadly bacteria like E. coli. Old windows and other home components like antique bath tubs may contain lead paint. Making use of salvageable resources is noble and thrifty, but first be certain what you're working with, particularly if you plan to put it in your home.

That said, here are a few outstanding examples of upcycled throwaways:

Upcycled books

There are plenty of things you can do with an old book, though the best way to reuse it is to reread it or pass it along to someone else who will. If, however, you have a desperate need to deconstruct a book -- physically, that is, not as literary criticism -- here are some clever repurposing projects that use the pages, spine, or the whole book hollowed out:

  • Handbag
  • Sculpture
  • Storage bin
  • Lamp base
  • Bench or chair
  • Display shelves
  • Origami and paper flowers
  • Charging station for electronics

If you're not a fan of destroying a good book someone else can read, consider tearing out pages from an old phone book (since they're free and no longer used on a regular basis, it should be a guilt-free substitute). You can make a very trendy graffiti lampshade using cut up phone book pages, glue, and spray paint.

Upcycling plastic gift cards

After you use all those fabulous gift cards you get for your birthday, wedding, or the holidays and there's no value left to them, what do you do with them? These suggestions are so good they might have you asking patrons ahead of you at Starbucks to give you their used cards -- or panhandling for them at the mall come January:

  • Jewelry
  • Mosaics
  • Key chains
  • Guitar picks
  • Luggage tags
  • Plastic paper clips

You can get a guitar pick punch online that's designed to make picks from plastic cards. The shape also lends itself well to jewelry, especially in a flower petal design.

The upcycled piano

Having a piano that is no longer functional in your home is like having an 800-pound gorilla in the room. Why not turn it into something useful rather than paying to have it hauled away and end its glory days in a landfill?

Granted, disassembling a piano and repurposing it as something completely different is no small task, but it can be done. Some of the more unusual ways to repurpose old pianos include the following:

  • Piano bar
  • Aquarium
  • Tool bench
  • Workstation
  • Bookshelves
  • Garden fountain
  • Kitchen island

…and those just make use of the larger components of the piano. The small parts can become jewelry, chairs and works of art to name a few possibilities. One couple was able to salvage only the music rack stand from her grandmother's water-damaged piano. The intricate design of the stand now frames a collage of precious family photos.

Probably the most practical upcycle project for a piano is to turn it into a desk or workstation. It's a major undertaking, and there are several companies that can do it for you, but if you are a determined DIYer may be up for the challenge.

Upcycling takes determination. However, if you follow through with your crafty dreams, you'll have a home and style unlike anyone else's. When you add in having a smaller ecological footprint and shrinking costs on home decor, it's easy to see why so many people are taken with this trend.