From Useless to Useful: Upcycling Studio

Most people are, or at least should be, familiar with recycling. The process breaks down municipal solid waste to its most basic form in order for the materials to be used again. It is a fairly simple concept that requires little thought or energy from us. Both in Paris and in Auroville it doesn’t go much further than throwing certain items into a yellow bin. However, with the world of waste in which we all reside, it is time to start exploring other, more creative methods of waste management. Upcycling is the innovative concept of taking waste in its current form, which would otherwise be discarded or recycled, and renewing its purpose. The Upcycling Studio is a small business in the Auroville community with that goal.

Our group from AUP was fortunate enough to visit the Upcycling Studio as well as two other organizations on the subject of waste in the same day: Wasteless and Ecoservice. At Wasteless, we learned of all the different types of plastic that exist and what can be done with each of them. For example, there are some plastics like PVC which can never be recycled. At EcoService, we were able to see how and where all the municipal solid waste in Auroville is managed. Both were very effective in contextualizing the magnitude of waste humans produce and all the challenges that follow.

The founder of the Upcycling Studio, “OK,” as we have come to call her, spent 20 years working for a French fashion company in South Korea. After coming to Auroville in 2008, she started the Upcycling Studio in order to find originality from waste and to reject the commercialism which dominates the fashion industry and has contributed to the consumerist economy and mindset responsible for our mass global accumulation of waste. In her studio, her team of six takes in waste that has found its way to the EcoService facility in order to create a range of products. Perhaps most common in the Upcycling Studio is the production of handbags. That said, they produce a range of products including furniture, cushions, jewelry, notebooks, key chains, bookmarks, art installations, electrical outlets, home décor, and many others.

One of the most used materials in the Upcycling Studio is PVC plastic, which as we learned from Wasteless cannot be broken down and recycled, so in this case upcycling is more effective than recycling. Additionally, recycling consumes a significant amount of energy. Upcycling at the Upcycling studio often only uses a needle and thread. Every product begins as a craft and each is unique. The business model is quite sound as well since all their materials are obtained for free. In addition to EcoService, a lot of the Upcycling Studio’s materials comes directly from Aurovillians. If anyone has a unique or large material, they can suggest it to the Upcycling Studio and many of the customers are local so there is a high degree of community building as well.

Several boutiques throughout Tamil Nadu carry products from the Upcycling Studio and they have their own kiosk in the Auroville Visitor’s Center. Currently, the products are not available for online purchase as they are still looking for help building a website. The operation is very localized. From a global perspective, thankfully there has been an increase and a shift in the discourse on consumption and waste generation. Upcycling as a concept is gaining momentum in that discourse. Applying the concept in a local context at a global scale would significantly reduce energy consumption, reduce the amount of un-recyclable waste, and serve as an outlet for human creativity. The Upcycling Studio acts as a pioneer in making our useless waste useful.


( – Upcycling Studio Facebook Page)

Written by Clark Marchese; Photos by Clark Marchese.

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