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10 of the World’s Coolest, Large-Scale Upcycling Projects
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media,  27 April 2015.

We love seeing creative ways to upcycle items that might otherwise just be thrown in the trash. The movement is gaining considerable momentum, and that’s being helped along by a plethora of large-scale and commercial upcycling projects across the globe. Not only are they raising awareness of environmental issues and turning upcycling into an incredibly creative art form, but the ideas found within these large-scale projects can often be scaled down to your own backyard.

1. The Great Crate

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Disposing of plastic is a major problem, and plastics are responsible for an alarming proportion of our garbage dumps and landfills. Fortunately, there are some brilliant ways to recycle and upcycle plastic, too - especially milk crates.

As a part of Sydney, Australia’s Art & About festival, hundreds of plastic milk crates were used to build The Great Crate, one of the largest container gardens in the world and the world's largest pallet garden. What’s more, the giant cube garden was truly a group effort. Seeds were distributed throughout the community before planting, and people were asked to help nurture the plants before they were transferred to the crates. The project’s upcycling nature was also reflected by the manner in which the flora was planted - not in pots, but in bottles and cans that would have otherwise ended up in the garbage.

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The Great Crate was featured throughout the 2012 art exhibit. Afterwards, the individual crates and their plants were redistributed to the community that had helped create the exhibit. What’s especially cool about this project is that, not only is it an absolutely epic way to raise awareness about recycling and upcycling, it’s also an experiment that anyone can replicate at home. No matter how much - or how little - space you have, milk crate gardens are a clever way to maximize space and minimize waste - not to mention the added bonus of fresh herbs, vegetables and beautiful flowers.

2. Japan’s Aquarium Phone Booths

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Image: Kingyobu

Koi and goldfish have an incredibly long history in Japan. Introduced in the 17th century, the fish have, for hundreds of years, been associated with good fortune and happiness.

There are even breeders of unique - and highly prized - variations of goldfish, all meaning that the upcycling of abandoned phone booths into aquariums is a completely logical one. Phone booths had their place, once a vital communication tool all over the globe. But with the advent of cell phones, demand for traditional kiosks has fallen - and there are a lot of them.

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Images: Kingyobu

The group, Kingyobu, which means, ‘Goldfish Club’, has taken it upon itself to turn a handful of abandoned telephone kiosks into aquariums filled with orange clouds of goldfish. Beginning in 2011, the tanks seemed to appear overnight, and in the morning, travellers on the streets were greeted with a whole new use for the old kiosks. Sealed to be watertight, the phones were usually left inside but disconnected. Fitted with bubblers, the urban art installations offer a unique take on the upcycling of Osaka’s many defunct phone booths.

3. Bohemian Guitars

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Bohemian Guitars combines the concept of upcycling with a rebellion against over-priced, cookie-cutter instruments. Music is supposed to be a creative expression of the self and the soul, after all, and there’s something ironic about using the same old instruments to create that.

Two brothers in Johannesburg, South Africa, stumbled upon the idea of upcycling all kinds of discarded materials into musical instruments. Depending on the options, recycled steel or vintage, metal oil cans are used for the body of the guitar, while discarded rubber is used to build the stands. Other parts are salvaged from old guitars and scrap metal, and the wood that is used is also replaced - planting a tree for every guitar sold.

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The Lee brothers’ message isn’t just an environmentally friendly one, it’s the idea that music shouldn’t depend on a major monetary investment. It should be available to everyone, and it should be allowed to work to unite those that hear it, and to create a collective community of like-minded spirits. It should be fun, whether you’re playing or listening, and it should also be inspiring.

4. PalletFest

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Image: PalletFest

Denver, Colorado is the home of everything eco-friendly, and it’s no surprise that it’s also the location of one of the most unique, offbeat festivals around. PalletFest has the distinction of being the first upcycling-focused festival in the United States, and it all revolves around, of course, pallets.

Chances are, pallets aren’t something you even think about, even if you work in a retail or shipping environment, where you see them all the time. But, they’re still a huge problem when it comes to waste management. According to Treehugger, as many as two-thirds of the total number of pallets used for shipping are only used once before they’re discarded. And with two billion pallets in circulation at any given time, that’s a huge amount of waste.

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Image: PalletFest

Fortunately, they’re also designed in such a way that makes them pretty easy to repurpose, and PalletFest was started with the idea of inspiring people to do just that. Some of their concepts - like the massive pallet maze - aren’t exactly feasible on a small scale, but they also promoting ways to upcycle old pallets into anything from art to garden furniture.

Factor in the idea that pallets are usually just given away for free to anyone who’s interested, and it’s a win-win situation.

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Images: PalletFest

The idea behind PalletFest took off, and developed into something even bigger. There are pallet parkour obstacles and a home and garden show, where all kinds of creative concepts can be viewed. And there’s more to this even than just pallets, too. There’s an art show whose guidelines require that items be made from something that was previously considered trash, in addition to a fashion show, live art, and beer.

5. The Pallet Pavilion

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Image: via Vimeo

In 2010, 11 students from the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark transformed a neighbourhood square using 420 pallets. Like we’ve said, there are a huge number of pallets that are used once and turned into trash - that’s a lot of waste and a lot of trees.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do with them, and the students came up with the brilliant idea of creating a functional, artistic piece in an ordinary town square.

The Pavilion was part sitting area, part path and part walkway. Arranging the pallets carefully meant that they were able to create steps and seats, and even a cosy, semi-private sitting area. The entire structure was created around elements that were already there, with the idea that it wasn’t just going to be an open courtyard any more - it was going to be interactive.


Part of the structure was mostly enclosed, creating a shaded sitting area with warmth captured from the sun, but one that was also pleasantly cool.

The installation was only temporary, but with the millions of pallets that end up in landfills each and every year, it’s a brilliant idea that can be used as the basis for creating a backyard structure almost anywhere in the world, whether it’s around a campsite, barbecue grill or elsewhere.

6. Upcycling Wine Bottles in Buenos Aires

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Image: via Green Diary

The decor of a restaurant is invaluable - it gives the place its atmosphere, its ambiance, and its character. La Dorita, a restaurant chain in Buenos Aires, found its character and soul kind of by accident.

An employee was looking for new, creative ways of using empty wine bottles that were being thrown away. He started making lamps from them, and soon began branching out into other types of decorations. His bosses were so impressed that they incorporated his wine bottles into almost every aspect of the restaurant’s decor.

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Image: via Green Diary

The chandeliers are made from wine bottles, simply arranged and fastened together. Upcycled wine bottles are used in the staircase railings, along the outdoor balcony, a simple, elegant trademark that’s noticeable even from the street. It was such a hit that the trend continued as they opened more and more restaurants in the chain.

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Image: via Green Diary

Ginger Restaurant, also in Buenos Aires, took the opportunity to use wine bottles for an incredibly practical purpose - acoustics. Originally, the building’s high ceiling made for an acoustical nightmare, until owners struck upon the idea of creating a lower second ceiling - on both floors - using wine bottles to help redirect and control the sound. It took more than 5,000 bottles, and not only did it work for its intended purpose, the restaurant became so well-known for it that they started using the bottles in other areas, like their outside menu-box.

7. Wine Barrel Hotel

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Finding new and creative ways to repurpose larger objects can be challenging. And when it comes to wine barrels, originally used to age 15,000 litres of Beaujolais at a Swiss vineyard, the possibilities might seem pretty limited.

But the wine barrels have some crucial things going for them, including their size and the fact that they were built not to leak. So, it turns out that they make pretty awesome hotel rooms. The Hotel De Vrouwe van Stavoren in the Netherlands has used four of the huge wine barrels to create a series of cosy rooms that look like something out of Lord of the Rings. With their round doors and little windows, the inside of each barrel retains its natural wood panelling and rustic feel.

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With micro-houses becoming all the rage, it’s not hard to see these casks being upcycled into sheds, offices, detached work spaces or even playhouses for kids. Given that they once held wine before being discarded, they’d make an excellent brewing shed or micropub, too.

8. Figment’s City of Dreams Pavilion

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Image: CDR Studio

Figment is a New York City-based group that focuses on interactive art, and every summer they hold a City of Dream Pavilion Competition. The task it simple - design a 50-person meeting hall, pavilion or gathering space that captures a few key ideas: a city of the future, sustainability, and the beginning-to-end life cycle of building materials.

Until 2015, the single winning pavilion was built on Governors Island throughout the summer, and those winners made an incredible, undeniable statement. In 2014, 20,000 discarded plastic cups (concept pictured) were zip-tied together to create the pavilion called the Governor’s Cup. Most were collected from events like concerts and baseball games, with collection boxes also located around the city in hopes of not only collecting cups but raising awareness.

The 2013 pavilion used 40,000 empty water bottles and 13,780 empty gallon jugs to create a surreal, cloud-like pavilion, and in 2015, there were two winners.

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Image: CDR Studio

For the 2015 installation, judges were unable to decide between two entries - so both were approved. The Billion Oyster Pavilion will use materials such as steel rebar and netting, focusing on the development of new oyster beds. Once the pavilion is taken down at the end of the show, all the materials will be recycled and used in local harbour restoration projects. The other pavilion, Organic Growth, will use objects recovered from the trash to shine the spotlight directly on the amount of valuable materials discarded into the world’s landfills.

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Image: CDR Studio

From broken umbrellas to discarded bicycle wheels, the pavilion will be a sheltered space of ‘flowers’ created from what we usually think of as old rubbish. That won’t be the end of their life and usefulness, either, as after the show, the individual pieces will be broken down and used as decorations and fixtures in public spaces around the city.

9. Rebuilding Post-Earthquake

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Tires also present a significant waste management problem, and even disposing of them correctly means the release of poisonous chemicals and toxins into the environment. Fortunately, it’s been discovered that there’s an incredibly cool use for old tires - making tire logs.

Re-Tread Products takes abandoned tires and creates a product that’s exactly what it sounds like. Tire logs are incredibly versatile, too, and can be used as a construction material for buildings or roads, in earthquake prone areas. Unlike other materials, tire log won’t crack or break under stress, which makes them perfect for everything from roads and retaining walls to housing - especially in areas that are constantly under the seismic strain of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

That’s not all they’re good for, either. They’ve also proved effective in erosion control and highway noise barriers, and opportunities for military and law enforcement use are also being explored.

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Image: via YouTube

Tires are a strange thing. You have four on your car (unless, of course, you drive a Reliant Robin), and chances are, you get a new set only every couple of years. But they add up, in a big way. In 2006, the United States alone had 300 million new waste tires that needed to be disposed of somehow, and about three-quarters of them were destined for one of three fates: burial in a landfill, ground-up for fuel, or ground-up for crumb rubber.

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Image: via YouTube

Upcycling old tires into building materials isn’t just a practical solution to the waste problem, it’s a practical solution to countless other building problems, too. Rubber from tires is meant to tolerate high impact and high heat, and that means they’re not going to warp and bend like wood or crack and crumble like concrete. It’s a win-win, and currently, Re-Tread is looking at re-purposing hundreds of thousands of tires every year - making them one of the ultimate large-scale upcycling projects that we’ve found.

10. TerraCycle’s Head Office

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TerraCycle was born in 2001, with a pretty simple idea - worm poop and compost. It’s now a global company, and as such, it would be fairly easy for them to have gone all out remodelling their headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey.

That’s not the case, though, and everything about their offices embraces who and what they are - in an incredibly awesome way. The company’s corporate image is evident the moment you walk in the door; the main entryway is decorated with graffiti, but it’s recycled graffiti, rescued from walls outside and remounted on the walls inside.

Designer (or, to be precise, Chief Design Junkie) Tiffany Threadgould created the space, which was intended to generate a sensory overload that stayed true to everything that TerraCycle was meant to be - and it’s clear there’s absolutely no limits to what can be upcycled.

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Countertops are the shining wood of what used to be bowling alleys, while old doors are turned into desktops. Wall art is everything from the repurposed graffiti to clock faces and bicycle wheels, while light fixtures were created from old film reels. The large, open, inside space is divided by walls made from bottles, while the only dividers at the communal desks are made from vinyl records. Chairs and couches are reused, but perhaps the most incredible area is Threadgould’s office, where she and her team try out new ways of upcycling one man’s trash into another man’s treasure, complete with ambitious projects like picnic tables created solely from recycled drink pouches.

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TerraCycle is living what it preaches and, fortunately, more and more people are living it as well. With society on something of a tipping point between making things that are cheaper to discard and replace than they are to repair, the upcycling movement represents the clever, imaginative and inspiring efforts of those determined to reduce waste.

Top image: The Great Crate. Credit: The Great Crate/Facebook.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited. Some links added.]

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