I have been making things from junk for years. I was the queen of upcycling before ‘upcycle’ was even a word. Mostly because when I get an idea I have to try it out with whatever material is available to me at the time. That usually meant something laying around the house, possibly in the bin. I really didn’t start out to be an actual upcycler - it has just sort of always been that way.
Then in 2008 I read an article in a scavenged National Geographic magazine about how much e-waste we produce and how there really isn’t anywhere for it to go. There were photographs of mile high piles of old computer monitors and shipping containers full of dead cell phones. It got me thinking. Where does any of our trash go once we throw it away and it’s out of our house? There really isn’t any ‘away’ any more, is there?
Suddenly there was even more reason to do what I was doing: using up materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Let me just say that I believe the first step to reducing the problem of waste is to try not to accept useless packaging and short lifespan items in the first place, but if I can give a longer life to throwaway material I’ll do my best.
For a long time I made useful, fun items out of old chip packets, snack wrappers and biscuit packets, along with a layer of advertising banner offcuts. In order to make the items last a long time and produce a quality item, I had to add two layers of different kinds of clear plastic. The process took a long time and more than a few samples to perfect. The products were popular, as they were hand made to ensure quality and perfection in each item. I was offering an alternative product to raise awareness of how much single-use trash we produce, and I was sure that people would see the benefit of buying upcycled instead of new.
I recently learned that in the ten years I have been making these products, humanity has produced more plastic than we did in the previous one hundred years. And it’s all still here, on the planet in one shape or another. Most of it is in the oceans, choking the marine animals and getting into your food and water supplies. It turns out we have not been reducing anything.
I could not continue with my popular product line as I was using the same amount of new plastic as upcycled plastic. Though my item would stay out of the landfill for longer it would eventually end up back in the trash. This was not good enough. I could not in good conscience continue with my upcycled snack wrapper range knowing I was putting just as much new plastic back into the world as I was taking out.
In my city of Grahamstown, South Africa, I have become known as the trash lady (in a good way). Friends and strangers come to me when they have interesting or unusual (and quite often just regular) trash that they feel I could use. A particularly spectacular example of this happened over coffee one day. A good friend said to me, “I’m sure you could sew old jumping castle.” Well now. She cut a piece from a beyond-repair jumping castle from her party business and let me experiment with it.
I love the colours and texture of the material, and though cutting a giant jumping castle up and scrubbing and ironing the pieces is a whole lot of hard work it is very satisfying. As far as we can find out, there is no recycling stream for old jumping castles and they would usually end up on the landfill. I only have to use new zips and binding in the process.I might use a bit of plastic from time to time but the pieces are so small I can usually scavenge them from clear pieces of packaging plastic.
This has opened up a whole new creative world for me. I imagine the material is infused with the joy and energy from all the small children who enjoyed romping on the jumping castles for years before they come to me. The energy seems to revive when I scrub off the dust and the colours come back to life. It makes me smile.
I will keep trying to do better, as I make something from nothing.