The upside to upcycling

Max McMurdo is a man on a mission – to breathe new life into other people’s junk. The entrepreneur and television presenter is a leading advocate of ‘upcycling’, which encourages people to find new uses for rubbish and discarded items by turning them into a variety of new objects. Jamie Hailstone spoke to Max about how both individuals and organisations turn trash into treasure, and help save the environment in the process.

 

What is upcycling and how does it differ from traditional recycling?

Firstly I should say that traditional recycling is vital, it is key to reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. Recycling basically takes the waste items and takes them backwards in the chain to their raw state so they can be used again, usually in a similar manner. Upcycling, however, through the addition of design, takes waste items forwards in the chain to become more beautiful, more valuable and hopefully more desirable for years to come.

Does it require some technical know-how, or can anyone do it?

Upcycling is such a broad term, there are wonderful projects for beginners such as fitting a clock mechanism to an old record or painting a coffee table all the way through to building your own floating home out of a shipping container, as I did which requires slightly more experience, tools and stupidity! The reason I wrote my latest book Upcycling was to give people guidance and support to give upcycling a go, as I understand it can be daunting for a novice.

Are there any particular items out there that are easier to re-use than others?

I tend to advise getting yourself down to a charity shop such as your local Emmaus and picking out some older furniture made from proper materials. Even if you’re using a cheap soft wood such as pine, you can cut, sand and fix it, which is very difficult to do with modern chipboard furniture.

What’s the biggest misconception about upcycling?

Upcycled items are not just tarted up junk! Good upcycling is an art, you are buying a unique item designed and made by an artisan. Gone are the days when people just threw some paint all over a piece of furniture – upcyclers are designers and should be following trends, exploring new materials and creating thought provoking pieces.

Has the internet – and in particular websites like Gumtree – made it easier for people to recycle/upcycle?

Upcycling has never been so popular or easy! Websites like Gumtree have made it easier to source good materials, advancements in tools and products such as chalk paints make it quicker and easier to achieve great results and manufacturers like Frenchic have even developed eco-friendly furniture paints, which are water based and non-toxic, so you are really helping to make a difference environmentally too.

How important is it, as a society, that we stop throwing things away and consigning objects to landfill?

It’s absolutely crazy how we have become a nation of consumers. We all think we need the latest technology, the newest car and last week’s catwalk ensembles. The reality is that we don’t NEED a great deal; shelter, food and warmth is all we really need. The sooner we start valuing time with loved ones and handed down pieces of furniture rather than money and shiny new stuff the better! As William Morris once said: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ 

Persuading individual households to find new uses for items is one thing, but how can we persuade large organisations to move to a more circular way of thinking?

Indeed, it is the large companies that create mountains of waste and we are currently working on a very exciting project named The Art in Manufacturing with Wayne Hemingway and the Festival of Making. We will be looking at the waste generated by several large UK manufacturers to see if we can design and manufacture a range of items from the materials and off cuts they currently throw away.

What can manufacturers do to make objects easier to upcycle?

Before I founded reestore I actually had a real job as a car designer. Back in those days vehicles used to stick together in all manner of ways without consideration for recycling or upcycling. I am pleased to say, however, that times have changed and now the manufacturers are responsible for the car at the end of its life, therefore new vehicles are a lot easier to dismantle and separate the individual materials which makes an upcycler very, very happy!

What can local authorities do to encourage residents to re-use and upcycle items?

When I was growing up I enjoyed nothing more than a trip to our local tip with the grass cuttings, as it was an opportunity for me to go skip diving and likely come home with half a BMX bike or a rusty old wheelbarrow. Due to the health and safety police and people in high viz vests this is no longer allowed. I would love to see an area at all recycling centres where the public can go and purchase scrap items that are still useable.

There are obvious environmental benefits to reusing items, but would you say there are other, less obvious benefits as well?

I confess when I founded reestore and started upcycling, I was completely focused on the environmental benefits. Recently, however, I’ve realised that the process of making, tinkering and upcycling is actually very beneficial to many in terms of rehabilitation, mental health issues and of course inspiring the next generation of designers and engineers. Design technology is no longer compulsory in schools so it’s important they learn these skills in other ways.

There’s been a lot of progress in the UK over the last decade on recycling and environment. Are you optimistic about the future, or do you think more needs to be done?

A lot more clearly needs to be done but it’s really encouraging when I go into schools that the majority of young people are lot more aware of recycling and upcycling then my generation. With ever-increasing TV shows such as Channel 4’s Amazing Spaces, Shed of the Year and Fill Your House for Free, and publications like Reloved and Reclaim magazine, there are so many ways we are engaging with like-minded creatives and inspiring others to get on board.

Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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