[ The Money Side of Lifeā„¢ ]

The Repurpose Driven Life: Giving old items a new image

By Crystal Kupper on January 21st, 2013 •

Jake Ryder stared at the empty basement around him. Fresh from his parents' home, he lacked two essentials: furniture and money. He did, however, have a closetful of broken skateboards. So Ryder outfitted his apartment with a coffee table, couch and armchair--all entirely made from broken skateboard decks and parts. Chances are you've been--or will be--in Ryder's frugal shoes, with the chance to create your own reused utopia.

Perspective Shift

Since childhood, we've been taught to "reduce, reuse, recycle," and for good reason: in 2010 alone, Americans threw away about 250 million tons of garbage, nearly 4.5 pounds per person. Even though we recycled almost 65 million tons, recycling isn't a magic bullet; it still requires energy to turn a cereal box into usable materials again.

Enter "upcycling:" finding new value for something once thought to be disposable. Think messenger bags repurposed from old jeans, pop can tabs turned into jewelry, and pendant lights made out of root beer bottles.

"There's so much viable material out there, and no reason why we shouldn't tap into that," says Ryder, who sells upcycled skateboard furniture at his Etsy store, J Ryde Visuals. "We have a disposable culture. It's a powerful thing when we move it the other direction."

That direction is gaining momentum, especially in online marketplaces like Etsy or Hipcycle. Dedicated to homemade wares, Etsy featured approximately 7,900 upcycled items in January 2010. Just one year later, those offerings had increased 379% to nearly 30,000 products.


Want to join the fun? Start with the basics: beds, coffee tables, couches and dressers. Check thrift shops and Craigslist, but don't forget yard sales, community exchanges, flea markets, old barns and even curbsides.

Send every piece through this three-point inspection:

  1. What's it made of? Something long-lasting like solid wood or thick metal, or chintzy, useless pressboard?
  2. Does it have any interesting features that stand out? If so, you'll be more likely to keep and use it.
  3. Can it be updated? Metal can be easily spray-painted, real wood sanded and stained, couches slip-covered and lamp shades switched out.

Take a hint from skatebirdshop.com artist Matt Mercurio's design book for sprucing up bare wall space: hang what you love.

"Start with something you gravitate toward. If it's motocross, look for broken fenders to hang," he suggests. "That way you'll stay involved. You might try a million times before it works, but when it does, it's awesome." 

Rethinking regifting

Stefanie Girard, recycled crafts editor at craftgossip.com, recommends taking stock of available materials, then thinking of friends, coworkers and family. Have a broken ruler? Glue the pieces to a photo frame and give it to a math-loving uncle. Is your parents' garage filled with old nuts, bolts and washers? Hang them on a strand of Christmas lights for your mechanic boyfriend.

"Be a trendsetter and rock your own style," she says. "If you say you made it, everyone thinks that's so cool."

A career in craft

Getting tons of compliments on a funky, made-it-yourself zipper bracelet may mean you can take it pro.

  1. First, do some research. What do people like or use? What materials do you already have?
  2. Think of a common item, like an iPod docking station. Now put a twist on it, like one made out of broken CDs. Search Google images for inspiration.
  3. Next, set up a website or an Etsy site (etsy.com/sell). Also consider selling at craft bazaars, local galleries or even home shows.
  4. Remember, you are the best advertisement. Constantly wear, display or use what you make to get noticed.

Most importantly, "Sell something you love," says Carrie Jones, founder of upcycled accessories site The Paisley Underground. "You have to like what you make."

Not everyone will like your stuff, but don't get discouraged. "If you create what you enjoy," upcycled metals artist Derek McDonald says, "that will show in the final product."

The Bottom Line

Repurposing is more than eco-friendly--it saves a bundle, or even earns some dough on the side. Find your passion and impress friends and relatives with irreplaceable presents they'll dig.

Sources: epa.gov; cleantechnica.com; guardian.co.uk; nationalgeographic.com; entrepreneur.com; earth911.com