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Published on September 2nd, 2011 | by Karen Lee

18

Green Crafting: A Justifiable Means to an End?

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plasticbottlecapmagnetsI love to reuse something old to make something new, especially if the item is heading for the trash or recycling bin. It’s the thrill of making something useful out of junk.

I’ve been practicing this type of crafting even before the term upcycling became a word. It’s still not a word in some dictionaries and spell check always yells at me when I type “upcycling” or “upcycle”.

When I was researching for my articles on PET bottles and non-recyclable plastic bottle caps, it made me wonder about upcycling. Actually, that’s not true– I’ve been thinking about the controversial ways people upcycle to make things, especially for profit, for many years.

My question is this:

Is upcycling an excusable practice if we abuse or ignore the “not-so-green” materials as a medium, all in the name of art and crafting?

How about using “eco-friendly” materials, like eco-felt or wool-felt or reusing plastic juice pouches or PET plastic bottles, thinking it’s OK to use, since they are eco-friendly, even though they originated from not-so-green resources?

Architect Gülnur Özdağlar has been producing cups, jewelery and home decoration accessories by recycling PET bottles since 2008. She collects, heats, cuts, drills, and shapes recyclable plastic bottles to make her art and accessories.

But is her art considered eco-friendly since she’s using up what’s already produced and the bottles that already served their purpose?

According to her website, Özdağlar’s aim is to,

“…obtain objects from things that have been discarded that are so beautiful, that we would want to wear or exhibit them, thus underlining the importance of “recycling” and encouraging it. In this way she provides her own personal answer to the problem of recycling. She believes that in the future there will be a plastic material that will not proceed from the cradle to the grave, but that will return to the cradle with no loss…”

She has all the right intentions and I applaud her for her methods in collecting bottles to create her art. But what if consumers feel complacent and are compelled to continue to buy plastic and not-so-green materials, thinking, “Oh, I can make a planter with the bottle” or “I can always make bags with this juice pouch so I don’t feel guilty buying them?”

Is that justifiable?

When there is a reconfiguration of one type of material, say, plastic, into what some might consider functional material, like plarn or eco-felt, I can’t help but to wonder if it’s justifiable to use plastic for the sake of upcycling.

In a previous post, Julie, clearly stated that she has no qualms on using eco-felt because you can’t find wool felt that was from humanely treated animals. And she does not feel guilty using synthetic (from plastic) felt because of that reason. Not only, is it economical, she feels good about not using synthetic materials that didn’t involve animals. She has valid points.

On the other hand, when weighing synthetic felt vs. wool felt, Becky firmly believes that “recycled wool is the way to go if you want to use felt. She also has a valid point.

How about plarn? Kelly posted a tutorial on how to make this type of yarn from disposable grocery bags that you can knit and crochet with. The single use plastic bags are notorious for ending up in the ocean and threatening marine life, so why not reuse them to make plarn, right? Makes total sense.

While all these options for green crafting are great tips, and given the options, we choose what is best for our needs and philosophy, but I wonder, what are we trying to convey by converting to a new material from the “evil” resource, as Julie implied.

There is a whole industry of reusing “evil” materials into “green” material: recycled cotton, bamboo, plarn, bags using juice pouch, pillows with eco-felt, etc. And the list goes on.

But shouldn’t we just NOT buy any plastic, chemically treated materials that result in environmental damage? Even if the end result is pretty or functional? I’d rather buy long lasting, natural, minimally processed materials to craft with, even if that means NOT crafting or upcycling, because truthfully speaking, what is the shelf life of a barrette made from eco-felt? Or a bag made from juice pouches?

We can make playground equipment with recycled plastic that will last much longer than any of the accessories that are made with recycled plastic.

I know given the choice, it’s always better to use recycled materials but we are talking crafting, not life saving surgery. We could chose NOT to craft using those materials, couldn’t we?

I’d rather NOT recycle, NOT upcycle, and NOT reuse, if the material I’m using is from the “evil” source to begin with. I’d rather REFUSE them all in the first place. Shouldn’t we? If we all decide not to use eco-felt, wouldn’t the industry not exist?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts.

[Image by Mapleb4, used under Creative Commons license. ]

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About the Author

Karen lives a simple, frugal, green life and shares her eco tips and news on ecokaren and is a co-founder of Green Sisterhood, a network of community of green women bloggers, making change. When she's not managing Green Sisterhood or blogging on ecokaren, she is a chauffeur to two greenagers, wife to an accidental recycler, master chef to hungry locavores, seamstress, knitter, and dumpster diver, not necessarily in that order.



  • http://glueandglitter.com/main Becky Striepe

    This is such a tough question, Karen! I guess my feeling is that in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have eco-felt because we wouldn’t have single use plastics. And I can totally see what you’re saying – are products like this helping folks feel justified about using disposables? I think for some people this might be true, but I think making products from things that are landfill-bound is still a positive thing to do.

    That said, I think it’s so important to keep in mind that the first R is REDUCE, and that’s what we need to be really focusing on. It’s a tough line to toe for sure, and I definitely share your green guilt on this one!

    • Karen

      Thanks Becky,
      I could drive myself crazy thinking, “How green is this craft?” when I make something.

      I’d go to a Goodwill store and see a beautiful denim skirt or pants that would make a beautiful bag. But I don’t buy it because I think someone can wear that. Same thing goes for a colorful wool sweater. Wool felting is all the rage but are people thinking about who can benefit by actually wearing it if they didn’t buy them to felt with it?

      My list goes on. I don’t craft for sake of making something. If I’m going to craft, I’d like to make something that will help me live a greener life….like replacing disposable with reusable……like your lunch bags. I don’t want to end at just reusing a material and call that being green if the end result is just frivolous crap that will eventually end up as garbage anyway.

      It bothers me that there’s a whole industry now, targeting “green crafters” and has been so commericialized.  It’ll make people to continue to use plastic, as long as they don’t feel guilty that “someone’ will recycle it to eco-felt or plarn bag.

      I know there’s a happy medium somewhere. I just wanted to know if others felt the way I felt or if I should take a chill pill. :)

      • Eve

        Certainly some thoughtful discussion and comments here!  I too question myself when I approach a “green” craft project.  Reusing what would go in the trash is pointless if I have to go buy other nasty materials – like GLUE!!! – one of the worst plastic, polluting offenders…or acrylic paint – to do it.  If I can save something from the trash and make it into something useful/decorative without adding to the plastic footprint, then it’s worth it for me.  And if I can rescue it from someone else’s trash (since I don’t buy things packaged in plastic), so much the better.  

        • Karen

          Oh, that’s so true! Glue and acrylic paint are common supplies even in green crafting. But they are all petroleum derived. So while I try to reuse and recycle other materials but then, I have to use glue to put the pieces together and paint it afterwards. I definitely use my green judgement in using them. How long will I be using the newly created craft? Will it last? Is it worth the carbon print of using glue and paint? Lots of questions have to be answered before I can use them.

  • http://lessconsumingmorecreating.blogspot.com/ Bethany

    Great thought-provoking post!  I’m approaching the question with the 90s mantra to “recycle, reduce, reuse” floating through my head – as it always does, since I learned it in my formative years.  :)

    For me, it’s a matter of prioritizing: the primary goal is to reduce (or, as you say, “refuse”) the initial use of things like plastic bottles (and then hopefully, eliminate their production altogether); until worldwide plastic consumption has been eliminated, my responsibility is to encourage reuse of as much non-biodegradable product as I can; and finally, when all else fails, I promote the recycling of this waste.

    We want to achieve the end of these materials’ production, but while they’re still being produced, it’s imperative that we encourage responsible reuse, even  though it’s not all life-saving.  Eliminating plastics and synthetic products is a solution to many of our eco problems, but we haven’t accomplished that solution yet.  In the meantime, upcycling is a temporary bandaid that has the potential to keep us from being neck-deep in landfill juice!  

    That said, I’m fully opposed to buying a 2-liter bottle so you can dump out the contents and make some plastic jewelry.  I do, however, support dumpster diving to fish out your neighbors’ bottles!  

    • Karen

      Hi Bethany,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I guess my main concern comes, not from  individuals dumpster diving for that 2 liter bottle, but the fact that there are companies that make “green” materials for “green” crafters to use for a profit. And the fact that that particular industry would have never existed if there was no demand. It’s not recycling for the right reasons anymore. It’s become a commercialized greenwashing business.  

      I know it’s better to reuse as much as possible but it’s a vicious cycle. And as you put it, it’s “a temporary band aid”. But it may lead to a bigger problem that a band aid will not be able heal if businesses see it as a chance for making a profit.

  • http://www.redtwine.squarespace.com Ainslie

    Karen (and ladies) -great discussion. I wanted to add a little something to your article though Karen – what about the benefit you get from being creative and actually making? You are denying your in-built need to make if you say that you will not make anything if it has to be from evil product.  I am all for dumpster diving for other’s plastic and I frequently collect neighbours plastic (well some neighbour’s ) and the kids and I use it to make things that they get great learning from and I get to get sticky and messy and creative. 

    I think that sometimes we can over-analyse completely the no-plastic thing – we can all do our best to refuse it first, but are we ever going to stop plastic milk bottle distribution – no – it is the economically viable option and sadly economics – even after the GFC and the mountain of debt the world is in, is still the language that all our governments speak. So we can go on making our great and ethical choices, but the materials are still out there. 

    My feeling is that if you see a great little skirt that would make a nice bag, buy it and make it. You are doing a few things – you are creating a sale in a charity shop – always a good thing; you are being creative and feeding your soul – an even better thing; you are teaching others as they see your creation that they could do that with something that they would otherwise throw away – even better thing; and for the person that would have bought a great skirt to wear – well we know in this consumer culture there is always another great skirt that she will find, love and wear hopefully till it wears out and then she might make a bag from it as she saw you in the shop next time using yours and loving it!
    I am not trying to simplify the issue – I think it is a very worthy debate – but I also think we could all lose our guiltometer for a little while and actually look at how much we are individually doing – let’s not put more guilt on ourselves and each other for the things everyone else is not doing, and celebrate the wonderful, creative ways that we can live in this busted up world, all the while trying to make it better for our little ones.

    Happy making
    ainslie

    • Karen

      Thanks for your thoughts Ainslie,
      I’m afraid the popularity of green crafting has made crafting industry poke it’s ugly “green” heads out to make profits out of our good intentions. Now you can find all kinds of “green” supplies in bulk, like ice cream sticks made from virgin wood, plastic scrabble tiles, wine corks, and glass soda pop caps…..now people are making ‘green’ crafts, using mass produced supplies shipped from “you know where”. I’m sorry but that’s not green crafting. And neither is taking away a perfectly warm wool sweater from a person who could have used it to be warm in the winter, for sake of ‘green’ crafting.

      Yes, I shouldn’t analyze too much but this thought has become an issue with me when I see people “abusing’ the term green crafting while doing nothing to reduce waste or being “responsible”, like you said.

      • http://www.redtwine.squarespace.com Ainslie

        Karen – I absolutely agree with you – those greenwashing the craft industry in the same manner as they are in any industry are indeed part of that group that care so much more about profit than about anything else.  I was not referring to buying craft supplies that are green to make craft – but as Bethany and Becky both said – the recylce, reuse, reduce goal is always my top priority.  The other one is a bigger issue that I cannot really address in any way other than to watch what and how I spend my dollar and how I work within my making habits.  Just like everyone else I guess.  Thanks for managing such a great debate!

      • Charmaine Vandestreek

        I just wanted to make one point about buying that sweater to make felt, or that great skirt to create a bag…Never think that it could be better used by someone else. if the thrift store doesn’t sell it in a certain amount of time, it ends up in a landfill anyway. So, who’s to say that if you don’t craft with it someone will wear it? If you see a use for it, be the one to save it from being tossed out as trash. There will always be another sweater or skirt for the shopper who needs one to wear.

        • Kristen

          I completely agree that recycling items from the thrift store is not the problem. I live in Chicago where there are waaaaaaaay more donations to these thrift stores than they can even keep up with. I used to work at a homeless shelter that had a free store for anyone in need of clothing, shoes, home supplies, etc. and we had hundreds upon hundreds of bags of clothing sitting in the back room. We couldn’t even give these clothes away. Also, don’t forget that a lot of the stuff donated to thrift stores also has flaws (holes, stains, etc.) and probably won’t be worn as clothing but could be used to make something else useful. I often buy sweaters to take apart and use the yarn to knit new things. If the alternative is buying new yarn that contains acrylic that came from China (produced under who knows what conditions) I would much rather put my money into the yarn I got by walking down the street and supporting a good charity organization that actually helps people. I see what you’re saying about the upcycling problem, but I personally think you’re wrong when it comes to this point.

  • http://myplasticfreelife.com Beth Terry

    Great post, Karen.  On the one hand, it’s important to reuse what already exists, and in that light, crafting with “trash” is helping the planet while allowing you to do what you love.  But on the other hand, knowing that someone can make felt out of disposable bottles should not be an excuse to consume even more bottles.  In a perfect world, that material wouldn’t exist.  But the fact is that it does, and using it is better than letting it go to the landfill.  

    As for worrying about turning a nice pair of jeans into a purse… I honestly think there is so much donated clothing in the world that you don’t have to worry about it.  Goodwill doesn’t sell out.  What they can’t sell they end up sending to textile recyclers.  Here’s a great post about the process clothing goes through at Goodwill:  http://liberatedspaces.wordpress.com/2010/02/19/goodwill-not-landfill/

    And here is a site that shows what happens to recycled clothing:

    http://www.bir.org/industry/textiles/

    Maybe, if you’re still concerned about turning a wearable skirt into a purse, you could ask at Goodwill to look through the stuff they are planning to recycle to find fabric instead of on the sales racks.  Just a thought.

  • Coccinelle

    About Eco-Felt and all other products made out of “post-consumable” PET plastic, aka plastic bottles. Do you guys know that if the demand goes higher than their supply they will gladly use freshly created plastic bottles just to maintain their supply. Yes there are plastic bottles in this world create ONLY in the purpose of making some “recycled plastic” somewhere. 

    If you want proof of what I say, sorry, I completely forgot where I’ve seen that but I think it’s really beleivable because there is a market and there is big money involved.

  • http://buildingordinary.blogspot.com/ Kathryn Grace

    Excellent article and debate, Karen. You and the others here make very good points. In my mind, it goes back to knowing our objectives and our sources. I see our objectives as three-fold: 1) To stop buying and using one-use containers and plastic of any kind; 2) To clean up the plastic mess we’ve already made; 3) To educate and persuade others who are not on board with the need for these measures.

    While we can change our own habits and buying patterns, we can also help clean up the mess left by others by reusing, repurposing and recycling their castoffs. I don’t fault a company that uses totally green practices and minimizes shipping for finding a way to reuse trash destined for our oceans and our landfills–in the interim. Such measures are necessary until we as a society get a handle on the greater problem. I do fault those who expect us to be gullible and take their word that their practices are fair and green. It’s tiresome to be ever vigilant about every purchase, and I feel tremendous frustration at times, but we are the vanguard and must keep pushing.

    What’s more, we can use debates like this to raise awareness of the inherent problems.

    I am grateful to you for raising these questions. We all need to be thinking along these lines. Until the vast majority is thinking so deeply, we need to continue to foster interim measures while simultaneously raising the bar.

    • Karen

      Kathryn, I couldn’t agree with you more. I only wish that others’ mission is the same. But unfortunately, we live in a capitalistic society where profit is the name of the game. If the sellers see that “eco-friendly” anything is where the money is, that’s where they will find ways to mass produce ‘eco-friendly’. I am more pessimistic than you, in that I don’t think there is a such thing as “interim”. I think companies will produce eco-friendly supplies for us to craft with, because there’s a demand and it’s trendy. And as long as we demand, that trend will continue, and it’ll no longer be eco-friendly.

      I have no problem with crafters who truly reuse and upcycle what they have in their possession. That’s where the upcycling movement started. But it gets tricky when that practice goes beyond the simplicity of upcycling.

  • Nicci

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about encouraging single-use plastics.

    We only have soda bottles on the rare occasion we have visitors, for the rest of the time we drink water and coffee.

    We carefully consider what we buy in terms of the packaging it comes in – it usually takes us three weeks to fill a garbage bag, simply because we minimise purchases with excess packaging, to the extent that we now eat only home-grown organic vegetables, and use a very small amount of dairy.

    Living in Africa, however, it makes sense to encourage unemployed people to upcycle for profit, to the extent that I would sooner buy an upcycled product than donate to a charity with hefty admin costs.

    I hand make bandanas and fabric wraps for gift-wrapping, and most of my gifts are home-made, and packaged in recycled glass jars. For gift hampers I weave baskets from our weekly freebie newspaper – we don’t buy newspapers anymore either.

    For a recent upcycling demonstration I was asked to present, I decided to make the pop bottle broom I saw on the internet. I had to beg my neighbours for pop bottles, they all think we’re weird because we never drink soda. Then again, they don’t understand why we look anorexic compared to them, if you get my drift.

    There are so many benefits in not buying prepackaged foods, how come EVERYONE doesn’t get it?

  • Nicci

    P.S.

    I am morally opposed to using additional resources such as electricity and chemically based adhesives to “upcycle”.
    Plastic upcycling crafts should not be about utilising any addiditonal resources, rather, they should be crafted with minimal tools (making them accessible to all economic groups) without harmful emissions, many people are unaware of the dangers of burnong plastic.

    Just my penny’s worth…

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