Paul Kane graduate Jeff Meszaros didn't realize that he was upcycling at first. He just saw an opportunity in waste.
The part-time piano teacher was working at Original Joe's in St. Albert about six years ago when he noticed the vast number of colourful bottle caps that were going in the trash.
Something could be done with them, he thought.
It took him six months to figure out what.
"I'm a music lover," he says, so he decided to take his caps, flatten them, and nail them to a board to create a mosaic of John Lennon. His friends loved it.
Now, he's collecting thousands of caps a week and transforming them into works of art as a part-time job. He's just finished a huge Edmonton Oilers logo, and is working on a C-3PO and a stormtrooper from Star Wars.
"Always people go, 'Oh, so how long did it take you to drink all those?'" he says, with a chuckle.
The caps come from bars across Edmonton, Meszaros says. They clink like gold coins as he hefts a bag of them.
"I did my rounds the other night, so I probably have got roughly 4,000 (here)," he guesses.
He sketches a design on a transparency and projects it onto a wooden board. After flattening the caps in a hydraulic press, he uses a nail-gun to fix the caps in place.
"I essentially am creating my own paint-by-numbers, and the paint is bottle caps," he says.
Eight to 40 hours of hammering later, and he's made a multi-coloured mosaic that feels like fish-scales to the touch. He's sold about 17 of them, and has more on the way.
"We waste too much, man, in every way almost, it seems," he says.
That's why he's taken to upcycling – to show people that trash can become treasure, and to get them to rethink how they look at waste.
An old idea made new
Meszaros is one of a growing number of upcyclers in the Edmonton region. Many of them roam the aisles at the Edmonton Reuse Centre – likely the region's foremost supplier of used ribbons, packing peanuts, and cardboard tubes.
The centre got its start about eight years ago from "garbage fairs" where people gathered to exchange unwanted but still useable household items, says the centre's reuse co-ordinator, Kristin Arnot.
The centre now accepts about 250 different waste items, including marbles, mannequins, and margarine containers. They collected some 190 tonnes of stuff last year and kept 90 per cent of it out of the landfill, Arnot says.
Upcycling is more or less a trendy way of saying "reusing." Arnot describes it as taking waste and giving it a new purpose.
"What we're encouraging is to give these items a second chance," she says.
Upcycling was a way of life for St. Albert environmentalist and artist Elke Blodgett, who grew up in Second World War Germany – although they didn't call it that back then. The first home she ever built was one she made when she was 10 from scavenged bricks.
"You didn't buy things. You went out into the old dumps and old ruins and salvaged what you could."
So when she built her dream home in the woods west of Lake Isle back in the 1970s, she didn't rush out and buy top-of-the-line new material for it.
"For one thing, I didn't have any money," she explains.
And the lumberyard had a tonne of fire-scorched cedar from B.C. she could get cheap. A house set for demolition in Edmonton provided the century-old oak floorboards (she had to scrape decades of shellac off them with a hand planer), while a church in Saskatchewan supplied a beautiful stained glass window.
The floor-tiles, books, and furniture inside the cabin are all second-hand, and the pottery kilns outside are made from reject bricks from a brickyard. Even the saw she used to build the place was scavenged. Just about the only new thing in the place is the stove, which, oddly enough, looks like an antique.
"It's a scrounger's house!" she says.
Blodgett says she didn't know she was "upcycling" when she made her home.
"I was just being very practical."
Meszaros says he didn't hear of the term until last year, but uses it as a hashtag all the time now. He was fairly eco-conscious as a youth, and still composts and recycles whenever he can today.
"Anything, in my mind, can be turned into a plant pot," he says, noting the plant growing out of a coffee mug on his dresser. He had an old claw-foot tub in the corner of his room that he didn't want, so instead of throwing it out, he's put it in his front yard for use as a planter.
The value of waste
Upcycling items helps keep waste out of the landfill, Arnot says. It's also much cheaper than buying new: the Reuse Centre lets customers buy up to 50 kilograms of material for just $5.
You also end up with something unique. You can't get a Christmas wreath made out of plastic bags in a store, and you won't find a bowl made from a melted record at Walmart. And if you want a four-poster cat-bed made out of scavenged fabric and wood like the one at the Reuse Centre, you'll have to make it yourself.
Reused materials make financial sense when you're renovating, says David Bruns, who sells salvaged building materials and upcycled decorations at Edmonton's Home Re-use-ables. Many renovators have to turn to the used market to get vintage doors and grates that aren't made anymore.
"There's no point in putting something brand new in a used home," he says, and a new two-by-four is the same as an old one.
Upcycling can add history to your home. Bruns says he recently got a bunch of chairs from an old Tim Hortons at the Edmonton International Airport, for example – chairs that doubtlessly hosted many famous butts over the years.
"People like the fact that there's a back-story to some of this stuff."
Upcycling is also fun. There's an undeniable charm in seeing a laundry scoop turned into a Christmas decoration like the one Arnot has at the Reuse Centre, and a rustic appeal to the second-hand cast-iron utensils Blodgett has lining the walls of her cabin.
Blodgett says it was stimulating and a challenge to build the cabin more or less by herself.
"It wouldn't have been half as much fun if I had bought everything new."
Upcycling starts with a change in mind-set.
"I look at everything in terms of what I could do with it," Blodgett says.
Socks can be darned, glass jars and bottles can be reused, and old tires can become garden beds and bird-baths, for example.
"My daughter has some ducks on her farm, and the ducks are floating around in this old tire."
Christmas is a great time to start, as, as Arnot notes, the average Edmontonian's waste volume doubles at around that time of year. You can reduce that by using old fabric and boxes to wrap Christmas gifts and cutting up greeting cards for gift tags. A few six-pack rings and some paint can make a fancy snowflake.
"Just because you don't have a use for an item doesn't mean it's not useful," she adds; many "junk" items can be donated to places like Goodwill or the Reuse Centre, or sold online.
Upcycling starts at home and at work, Meszaros says. Look at what you do, and think about ways you can use the waste you make.
"You can just change a few little things at home. If everyone does it, then it will have an impact."