Up-Cycling for Social Wellness (plus a paper beads tutorial!)

By Sydney Carter ’13, Wellness Communications Assistant

“I’ll see a can and I’m staring at it when my husband will say, ‘You want that can don’t you?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it would make really pretty earrings,’” said Oakland Hall Resident Director, Lisa Alexander during a conversation all about upcycling.

What is “upcycling?” It takes reusing to a whole new level. Upcycling strives to transform an item that is no longer needed, wanted or able to serve its intended purpose into a new, quality item that is useful or creative.

A distant cousin to recycling, upcycling is unique because it requires no chemicals and results in a transformation that increases the worth or quality of the item. Through recycling, a magazine becomes another paper product; but through upcycling, magazine pages become beads for a lovely new bracelet. (Directions for this craft below!)

Upcycling provides a unique and sustainable opportunity to decrease waste and fulfill a need with minimal to no cost. It is an excellent activity to try during September as part of Social Wellness Month.

Demonstrate your care for the environment by re-purposing an item; then demonstrate care for your local community by re-purposing that item into a quality good that fulfills a local need. Whether it’s a housewarming gift for the new neighbors or centerpieces for the picnic tables at the community cookout, share your upcycling products with others.

I sat down with Alexander to chat about upcycling and her personal experiences with the stress-relieving, creative act.

What is upcycling?

Alexander: Upcycling is taking materials that you would otherwise find in landfills or put into the trash and finding a new, functional purpose for them- whether it’s creating home furnishings or creating necklaces and jewelry.

How is upcycling different from recycling or repurposing?

Alexander: I’d say upcycling involves more craftiness than repurposing. You’re usually making something for someone or it’s becoming a part of some decor. For example, I’ve seen a lot of people upcycle old doors that you’d normally use for a house, but it’s not in good condition anymore or it has started to deteriorate a little bit. The door is still somewhat functional and I’ve seen a lot of people make them into picnic tables.

What are the benefits of upcycling?

Alexander: It’s mostly just a fun thing for me… For me it involves a lot of thinking about things that I can do with stuff that I can then give to other people so I don’t necessarily have to go and purchase gifts or products… In general, arts and crafts and things like that are therapeutic for a lot of people.

How did you get started? What’s your personal connection to upcycling?

Alexander: I had always done it in a way, but I had not necessarily thought about it in that context until I was really pushed more into the sustainability-mindset here at the University of Maryland… Doing research I found one of my favorite sites that has tons of different types of things on recycling and upcycling. Upcycling is relatively new as far as popularity, but I think it’s always been around.

Any advice?

Alexander: For those who think they haven’t tried anything upcycling I would encourage them to think back a little bit further and open their mind to what upcycling is, because I bet they have in some way. I think that’s where a lot of people get stuck. They don’t think that they’re creative and they think that they have never done anything like this before, but in reality they’ve probably done something.

So, do you have a tower of Coke cans waiting to be hauled off to the recycling bin? Consider cleaning them, slicing them and then, with time and creative flair, crafting them into one-of-a-kind jewelry items. Grab that empty jar and drill a hole in the lid to insert an old lotion pump for a brand new soap dispenser. And just imagine the possibilities an old book provides.

Eager to give upcycling a go? Here’s a simple craft to get you started!

How to Make Paper Beads


  • Magazines
  • Scissors
  • Coffee stirer
  • Paint brush
  • Modge Podge
  • String, ribbon, thread, etc. of choice


  1. Cut strips of magazine pages in the shape of an elongated triangle. The longer the strip, the thicker the bead will be. The larger the triangle, the larger the bead.
  2. Place the larger end of the strip onto the coffee stirrer and loosely roll the magazine strip around until an inch-long strip remains.
  3. Dip the paintbrush into the Modge Podge and paint the underside of the inch-long strip and glue it to the bead.
  4. Cover the entire bead in Modge Podge and let dry for 30 seconds.
  5. Remove the bead and repeat steps 1 through 4 until you have all the beads you want.
  6. String the beads onto your chosen material and knot to complete your bracelet or necklace of choice.
  7. Flaunt your upcycled accessory!

Want some more ideas? Search “upcycling” on Pinterest, investigate Upcycle Magazine or check out Danny Seo’s book, Upcycling: Create Beautiful Things with the Stuff You Already Have.

Have you ever upcycled an object, or do you plan to try it in the future? Tell us about it in the comment section below!

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