When Moe O’Hara moved to Burlington four years ago from upstate New York, she was barely able to scrape by — the cost of living was higher than she’d anticipated. So she began shopping at thrift and consignment stores and soon recognized the bounty they held for her, not just as an underpaid twentysomething looking for a bargain, but as an artist needing cheap materials.
O’Hara started making journals from old books and reams of discarded computer paper. Over time, her hobby — making something of value from trash — became her full-time job. She now sells her wares, including baby bibs, wallets, stationery and children’s capes, at stores and farmers markets around Vermont, as well as on the indie crafter site etsy.com.
What O’Hara, 28, does is part of a newly defined green movement called “upcycling.” Increasingly, crafters and artists of her ilk are using the term to describe their work. Upcycling is different from “recycling” because its practitioners take materials that were bound for the landfill and add value to them, generally transforming them into something completely different.
The term “upcycling” surfaced in 2002 in William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, but it didn’t gain national traction for another few years. O’Hara is reluctant to call herself an upcycler, since she didn’t coin the term. But she does use it to describe her products.
“Upcycling is an awesome term. I wish I came up with it,” O’Hara says. “But that’s what I’m doing. I take things that don’t have a use anymore, and I make them into something more useful.”
Thrifty folks have been making over “useless” things since time immemorial. But turning this activity into a revenue-generating business by capitalizing on the rising green tide is a 21st-century phenomenon. In Vermont, the upcycling label is just beginning to take hold. And “recycled” art — typically an assemblage of detritus from the junk pile — has suddenly become passé.
Upcycled products do not look recycled. O’Hara’s journals, for instance, look brand new, though they were made from recycled or salvaged materials. So do her baby bibs, which are made from fused plastic bags. The Burlington artist is selling what amount to recycled goods, but consumers don’t necessarily purchase them to be green, O’Hara says; people buy her products because they look good.
Local crafter Nicole Diebold also adds value to items that might otherwise be junked. She started her business, Fiddlehead Shades, in February after discovering she could refurbish the old roller shades in her house by replacing the vinyl with different fabric.
Diebold reconditions roller shades with linen or cotton so people don’t have to throw them away. Her next project: figuring out what to do with the leftover vinyl. She’s currently using it for dropcloths, but ideally she’d find another use, as well. “It’s really rewarding to take something like this and give it new life,” Diebold says.
Her upcycled shades will soon be available for retail purchase at Burlington’s newest consignment store/art gallery/upcycling depot, Anjou and the Little Pear, on Main Street. The store, owned by Jess Ackerman, is slated to open next month and will carry everything from consigned modern furniture to products from “creative upcyclers.”
Ackerman’s idea for her store evolved from her passion for treasure hunting. She loves happening on little gems serendipitously, and that’s what she hopes her store will be for other people — one big treasure hunt.
Ackerman, who with her husband Dave owns the building that formerly housed Architectural Salvage Warehouse, envisions the store divvied into three areas — one for consigned home furnishings, one for upcycled goods such as Diebold’s shades, and one for locally made artworks. The inventory will change every few months or so, Ackerman says, in keeping with the treasure-trove theme.
Ackerman first heard the term upcycling a couple of years ago, and it clicked for her right away. “I like the green aspect of not throwing things away, but instead creating something great out of them,” Ackerman says. “The character of old stuff shouldn’t be lost.”
The shop’s name derives from the Anjou pear, a common French variety with a pale green skin. For Ackerman, the name suggests her place is “tasteful, with a bit of green.” She doesn’t want to force eco-consciousness — as many “planet-sensitive” businesses do. And that’s why upcycled goods will work well, Ackerman predicts. They are subtly green, without the guilt trip.
Used to be that if you wanted a green house, your choices were forest green, sage, mint julep or seafoam spray. Today, green houses are more about R-values, sustainably cut lumber and low-flow toilets. The green-building revolution may not be televised, but it has arrived in Vermont and is making headlines.
This week, Ryan and Susan Hayes share their blueprint for a greener footprint with their ambitious plans for an earth-friendly house; Ken Picard asks which houses are green and which ones are “greenwashed”; Kevin Kelley visits Middlebury’s Good Point Recycling to find out where our electronic trash goes; and Lauren Ober contemplates “upcycling.” Shelburne’s Joe Nusbaum takes a tiny house on the road, as Alice Levitt reports; Food Editor Suzanne Podhaizer takes on takeout — containers.
We’ve only got one planet. Let’s not waste it.
This is just one article from our 2009 Green Issue. Click here for more Green Issue stories.