If we traced a timeline, we would be able to clearly see the many ways art has influenced our perception of nature and how we have been relating to the environment around us.

Even though it may not have been the French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s intention at the time, his 1877 painting The Gare Saint-Lazare interestingly portrayed Europe by the end of the Industrial Revolution, after 1840.

Due to its significant inventions and discoveries, as the locomotives and the telegraph communications, historians consider this period not only a social and technological milestone but also a marker of natural resources’ degradation and exploration for the sake of development.

By almost poetically portraying the effects of light, seeping through the glass roof, and clouds of smoke coming out of the locomotives, Monet created a classic example of how art can document the relation between men and the environment at a given time.

Besides documenting, other events and contexts demanded art to play different roles towards environmental issues. Take the emergence of the counterculture in the United States in the 1960s, for example.

This movement, famous for the hippies and the civil rights mobilizations, was characterized by the rejection of conventional social norms as a response to issues like America's involvement in Vietnam in 1965 and had an artistic facet known as Environmental Art

Artistic manifestations as Art Povera and Land Art suggested a new outlook on men’s connection to nature by returning to simple objects and messages. They also demonstrated how art could be used from that moment on as a political statement and shed light on environmental problems. 

But it was only in the 1990s and 2000s that art gained an even more significant role in constructing a more sustainable and conscient world: an active transformation tool. It was then that artists started to find ways of using art as a possible solution for environmental issues.

Among the many creative alternatives that emerged at that moment, one of the most interesting is upcycling. Have you ever heard about it?

What you need to know about Upcycle 

The upcycling technique consists of reusing objects and materials to create new items, often with different functions, without changing the original object’s main characteristics. An upcycled item usually equals or outdoes its original in quality due to the design effort in adding value to it. 

Interestingly, the dates of some important mentions to upcycling coincide with those of significant worldwide environmental events.

The first record of usage of the term upcycling was by the entrepreneur and environmentalist Reiner Pilz, from Pilz GmbH, during an interview with Thornton Kay, from Salvo, in 1994. In an excerpt from the interview, Reiner reinforces that, unlike recycling, which he called downcycling, the purpose of upcycling is to give more value to products. 

This exploration for new ways of thinking about the use of resources and the perception of product’s values is strongly connected to the spirit of the 1990s, a decade marked by the search for a better understanding of sustainable development, in parallel with growing trends regarding globalization, international trading, and technology.

A series of important international conferences took place in this decade. Events as Rio92, the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), and the International Conference on Population and Development (Caio, 1994) helped internalize the concepts of environmental sustainability that we know today.

In 2002 the UN held the conference Rio+10 as an attempt to reassess and implement the conclusions and guidelines obtained during Rio92 and obtain more ambitious and well-defined goals for some of the main environmental problems. Not coincidently, the same year that William McDonough and Michael Braungart also used the term upcycling in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

There, McDonough e Braungart affirm that the upcycling’s objective is to avoid wasting potentially useful materials, using existing ones. And they were right. We can still notice this and many other benefits of upcycling today.

Upcycling objects reduces the amount of waste taken to landfills and the need to explore raw material for the manufacture of new products, being one of the great examples of Circular Economy, which proposes the use of waste as an input for the production of new goods. 

Very creative, isn’t it? Up to this point, has it become clear to you how upcycling diverges from recycling? We can explain this difference a little more!

Infra-recycling and supra-recycling  

Society generates an immense amount of waste. As a possible solution to this scenario, recycling has become a necessary action to protect the environment. With the evolution of this process, two strands of recycling emerged, infra-recycling and supra-recycling

In infra-recycling, certain materials are used to manufacture new products of lesser value than the initial ones. This process is widespread for plastic and paper-made goods, for example.

Food and drink packages usually go through this process since they cannot be 100% recycled, and part of their integrity is compromised. They are transformed into resins, and only after that can they be transformed into objects such as tables, chairs, and other plastic products - such as dumpsters.

Another typical example of infra-recycling is the recycling of paper, usually transformed into lower quality products, as toilet paper, or used for photocopying. 

Infra-cycling is indeed essential and useful, but supra-cycling adds an exciting outlook to the recycling and production processes. Through creative interventions, the final products acquire even more value, as it happens in upcycling. Can you see the difference now?

Discover some upcycled artwork  

Now that we have gone through all these concepts and how they relate to historical contexts and environmental issues, let’s check some examples of upcycled products and artworks?

Kite Coat 

On average, a kitesurf kite has a life cycle of approximately 300 hours of sailing. On the other hand, it takes 300 years for the nylon present in the kites’ composition to decompose in nature. Based on these figures, the Brazilian brand Kitecoat decided to give a much more stylish destination to expired kites. Instead of being discarded and possibly damaging nature, the kites are used as material to produce exclusive coats that carry stories of great adventures.

Ocean Solo 

Would you ever imagine finding large-scale animal sculptures, souvenirs, or art installations made of footwear? That’s the solution Ocean Sole found to solve an unusual problem. Each year thousands of flip-flops wash up East Africa’s coast. The Kenian team collects this discarded rubbish that harms ocean eco-systems and uses the material to build products that are both visually exciting and good for the environment.    

PalletFest 

The majority of shipping pallets are only ever used once, contributing a significant amount of waste in the volume of discarded materials. What would be a possible solution to this problem? So picture this: a whole festival made of pallets with cool pallet-made projects as a pallet maze or a pallet amphitheater hosting live musical performances.

That’s what you can find yearly in Denver at the PalletFest.The vast array of art displayed at the festival delivers an essential message about the number of useful products we have been throwing out. 

Conclusion 

Art, society, and the environment go hand in hand. Art documents, influences, and acts directly in the way we relate to nature and build environmental awareness.  

Within this scenario, upcycling excellently exemplifies how art allows us to positively impact the world and develop a more sustainable mentality by experimenting with techniques and materials creatively.

So here’s a challenge for you: how about trying upcycling the next time you consider discarding one of your belongings? We are sure it would look great, and that nature would be thankful!


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