When it comes to ecological materials, we often hear about recycling materials or sustainably produced materials, however, the term that has yet to become mainstream is: upcycling, however, if you are an off-stream person (not to say hipster) who has heard about this term, you could’ve struggled to understand the difference between recycling and upcycling.

Here is the easiest way to put it: recycling is sending materials back to factories to be processed and become a new product. For example, paper recycled into new paper, plastic bottles into new plastic bottles. This extends the life of the material, but it will inescapably become trash once again. Upcycling is taking an already existing product (or material) and upgrading its value while avoiding complicated processes that alter the original product, however, if the product must undergo a process, this one must not pollute.

Now, why is upgrading important for designers and architects? Simply imagine the possibilities of taking that so-called “waste” that this consumerist world of ours produces every day and giving it an upgrade like aesthetic value or using it to help the thermal performance of the building or even to form part of the structure. Besides, imagine the benefits on the budget when not having to buy everything brand new.

Campana Estudio, from Brazil, is characterized by their quirky take on materials and their attempts to make design ecological and sustainable. Their project of the interior of the New Hotel in Athens curiously upcycles old wooden furniture pieces. At first sight, there seem to be a few thick columns with different shades of brown in a random disposition but after taking a closer look, one begins to recognize wooden parquet fragments, table and chair legs, broken drawer pieces, etc. All of those pieces were once furniture, but now they form part of the fountain of wooden chunks that flow down from the ceiling of New Hotel’s restaurant. All of those pieces of wood that would have ended up in the dumpster are now part of the interiors of a hotel.

A pretty decent way to spend their days after retiring from their service as furniture.

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Image Sources: New Hotel’s restaurant. ©www.dezeen.com

Using upcycled materials in the way Campana Estudio did in the Athens Hotel gives a powerful statement. We must be aware of the problem created by getting rid of things, never to care about where they end up next. In this hotel, the designers shove into the visitors’ faces all that broken furniture and say: “look what I found in the dumpster, it looks pretty cool doesn’t it?”

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Image Sources: New Hotel’s restaurant. ©campanas.com.br

Unlinking something that has been around for centuries from its originally-given purpose is a practice of creativity, resilience, and nowadays it is severely necessary. Who says that an old window cannot become a coffee table with a terrarium? This is a vision that Hackney Botanical, from the United Kingdom, brought to life. The tables consist of a wooden box filled with sand and earth in which the plants are planted, on top of that is the restored window which is the table-top. Space is left between the plants and the window for the air to flow naturally through the plants. Look through the window and you will see a growing and changing micro-garden at home.

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Image Sources: Terrarium table. ©www.hackneybotanical.com

This differentiates recycling a window, which is sending the glass to a factory to be shattered, melted, and made into a new glass product, and upcycling a window, restoring the window, and elevating its value.

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Image Sources: Terrarium table. ©www.hackneybotanical.com

A different take on upcycling is using materials that nature gives us but that lack function or even represent a problem for communities. Such was the case of the sargassum waves that hit the Mexican Caribbean in 2019. Sargassum is a brown seaweed that floats, it naturally comes ashore throughout the year, but in 2019 the amount of it was greater than it had ever been before. After some time, the sargassum mountains started producing unpleasant smells due to degradation. This affected the quality of the beach and therefore, tourism. The government began cleaning the beaches, but the real breakpoint of the story began when the locals took action. Omar Vázquez Sánchez, owner of a plant nursery in Quintana Roo, Mexico, created bricks out of the sargassum seaweed and built a house with them. The house was named Angelita in honor of Omar’s mother.

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Image Sources: Locals helping clean the sargassum out of the beach. ©www.archdaily.mx

According to Omar Vázquez Sánchez, the sargassum bricks are produced the same way as adobe bricks, meaning that they are artisanal and with no intervention of chemicals harmful for the environment, adding to that that the process eradicates the bad smell. The cost of the first Sargassum house was 50% less than a social interest house in Mexico. That is a lot of savings, plus it contributes hugely to the development of social-dwellings, plus it helps to defeat the problem of stranded sargassum. That is killing not two, but three birds with one stone, pretty big birds by the way.

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Image Sources: Sargassum house “Angelita”. ©www.archdaily.mx

Upcycling can be applied in pretty much every industry and even in everyday life, all that is needed is creative, open minds that break things out of their usual label and give them a new, twisted use that elevates their value. Upcycling should not represent a challenge, but it should be a tool for developing new constructive technologies and design methods with which designers, architects, engineers aim to tackle the ecological issues of contemporaneity.

It is imperative to say that by no means, should recycling, nor any attempt to make our planet a greener place, be disparaged. Everything is valid at the moment, for we as the human race are still searching for the best ways to reduce our footprint on Earth.

References to text: www.campanas.com.br/interior-design/new-hotel/ www.dezeen.com/2011/09/07/new-hotel-by-the-campana-brothers/ www.thefreedictionary.com/sargassum www.obras.expansion.mx/construccion/2019/03/11/fabrica-ladrillos-con-sargazo-y-construye-viviendas-en-quintana-roo www.archdaily.mx/mx/902679/disenan-casa-a-base-de-sargazo-con-50-percent-menos-recursos-del-costo-total-de-una-casa-de-interes-social www.hackneybotanical.com/shop/grove-terrarium-table