Sunday, February 8, 2009


Thursday night on Manhattan's Upper West Side is known as "Big Garbage Night"—the one night of the week when neighbors put out their cast-off couches, bookcases, fireplace tools, old [and sometimes new] lamps, finished books, and other objects to be picked up by sanitation workers in the wee hours of Friday morning. Yet most of the stuff—the best stuff—never makes it to Friday. The not-so-big secret? Residents of this well-heeled neighborhood usually pick it up before the trucks do. One neighbor says she furnished her two-bedroom apartment almost entirely from BGN cast-offs. ["It's perfectly good stuff," she told me. "I'll take it, add my own touches, and make it into something more fabulous."]

At first, this struck me as one of those "only in New York" phenomenons—and then, more recently, as a sign of the economic times. Yet as I watched this self-organized, nocturnal flea market rise up again this past Thursday from my parlor window [Albert, across the street, was sizing up a small, solid oak door left as debris from a neighboring renovation], it struck me that there might be something else going on, that maybe we're all upcyclers now—if not in the physical world, then certainly online. Is the social Web's culture of sharing, sampling, re-tweeting, and appropriation spilling offline, encouraging more sampling and appropriation throughout our lives? [Albert told me today he plans to turn his find into a dining room table, based on an article he saw on Facebook, and start a "how-to" blog to share the experience. Eventually, he says, he hopes to create a do-it-yourself-design business.]

Call it Upcycling 2.0—the rise of a whole new crop of amateur and professional artists, entertainers, designers, and business people who are not simply recycling their garbage, like Terracycle, which makes consumer products from animal waste and old soda bottles. This new wave is re-contextualizing older objects and ideas; creating new visual and structural dialogues between the old and the new, the organic and synthetic, between one set of ideas and another.

One of the most prolific and inspired of these new upcyclers is Adam Kalkin, an artist and architect, whose Quik House projects convert old boxcars into pre-fab and low-income housing. For years, Kalkin has been developing these projects for commercial use, but he's also now organizing a SWAT team of designers to offer such housing to refugees of economic dislocation and global conflict around the world. "The container is a purpose-built object, but when you re-contextualize it—put it in a residential context—you both destroy its original context and create a new one," Kalkin says. He calls this a "new form of upcycling"— in his case, the act of taking modest storage forms [like boxcars] and materials and using them for a higher purpose. Kalkin says his work in this regard is "very much informed by the swell of Web-inspired appropriation and re-appropriation informing our culture at large." [For more on Kalkin's work, click here.]

My favorite example of upcycling, however, is from the world of entertainment—60s crooner Paul Anka's rendering of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit (click, left, for Nirvana's version). Anka is not simply "covering" Kurt Cobain's grunge rock hit of the early 90s. (Kalkin agrees with me.) Anka is creating a higher form of the original. Here he is, below:

For more upcycling, check out Patti Smith's version, here. Also check out Terracyle's latest projects here, as well as William Kamkwamba's work building a windmill in Africa. Also see how the design community is putting on another show this spring to promote numerous examples of upcycling. The trend also is happening in Second Life. Says machinima documentarian Douglas Gayeton, creator of Molotov Alta series on HBO, "Second Life is now more fertile than it ever was, and not driven by commercialism now so much as by idea-sharing and effort by some to upcycle the real world."

(Illustration, Green Machine, by Matt Hertel)

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Blogger Morten Skogly said...

Thanks for the great post.

I feel you left out, which in my opinion is the best example of people upcycling and creating a business around it.

A search for upcyle on etsy shows the amount of creativity in this area.

By the way, the term is from the book Cradle to cradle. Read about it here

February 9, 2009 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks Morten for your comment. Yes, William McDonough coined the term, originally to refer to recycling to improve the physical environment. What's fascinating about these newer upcyclers is that they are, in a way, "upcycling" the concept by more broadly applying it to thoughts and ideas. Thanks for the input on Etsy! Great bit of information to share and I appreciate it! And thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing from you again.

February 9, 2009 at 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stepanek said...

Very interesting post - Out here in the wilds of Grosse Pointe, Michigan upcycling takes on an upscale twist - "estate sales" - always a popular way to shop, one ever more so given the state of our state.

William McDonough may have coined the term "upcycling" but I believe our very own Cap Blood pioneered the concept.

February 9, 2009 at 7:24 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Steve, for your comment! I agree that the economy is giving the concept new impetus. Thanks for reading!

February 9, 2009 at 7:27 PM  

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