Meet the ‘Uppies’

An Uppie is a person who has decided to live a life that is less wasteful in the hope of ensuring a brighter future for the generations who have yet to set foot on our beautiful blue-green planet. An Uppie is different from most self-proclaimed ‘greens’ in that they do not believe t hat we can buy our way out of the mess we’re in. Eco-consumerism alone cannot reduce C02 and other greenhouse gas emissions to an acceptable degree; in order to truly reduce our impact on the planet we must address the innately wasteful nature of modern living.

The Uppie reduces their environmental impact by becoming a dedicated ‘upcycler’ – hence the name ‘Uppie’. Upcycling is a process conceived by German chemist Micheal Braungart and architect William McDonough whereby end-of-use, disposable materials (especially items that are usually considered ‘waste’) are transformed into objects that have a greater use and/or value. Braungart and McDonough argue that the present industrial system, one which “takes, makes and wastes”, can become more sustainable through a system of “lifecycle developmen t”. But Uppies aren’t prepared to wait around for business and industry to finally get their act together; instead we choose to turn the existing “take-make-waste” principle on its head by taking their waste and making something new from it, thereby retro-fitting a ”lifecycle development” policy to any old junk we can find. 

The Uppie ‘upcycles’ everything that they possibly can in each and every aspect of their daily life; they live by Henry David Thoreau’s maxim “Never buy what you can make.” Indeed Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ can be considered a primer for Uppie living, but despite having sympathy for Thoreau’s wish to “live deliberately” the Uppie is not anti-consumer or anti-technology, rather we seek to take back control of our lives by utilising (and openly sharing) technological, engineering and artistic skills to avoid blind consumerism; this has a positive effect on our personal health, the health of the planet and the health of our bank balances (for those of us who still bother with banks). In fact the thrifty, creative Uppie can be seen as the antithesis to the greedy, ultra-consumerist Yuppie; ironically the Uppie is in a position to be financially more secure than the Yuppie – even if we use traditional economic yardsticks (‘wealth’ in Uppie terms is a whole new board game). Also with the greatest respect to Thoreau we do we wish to live outside of conventional society (even if it were still possible to do so in the GPS age); you can become an Uppie without having to go through any major physical or emotional upheaval.

The Uppie philosophy is that there is no such thing as waste, only wasted opportunities. A large percentage of our waste is needless, created by unnecessary packaging or the whims of fashion. Packaging waste is perhaps the easiest to deal with; leave excess food packaging at the till when you do your shopping and avoid anything that is blatantly over-packaged (this is hardest to do with kids toys – but then again they usually like the boxes better than the toys themselves and cardboard can be like gold-dust to an Uppie). Fashion is a subject we’ll approach later; needless to say Uppies are far too flamboyant to allow themselves to be tied to other people’s tastes. 

The aforementioned “take-make-waste” ethos shows a distinct lack of regard for the imagination; which is a shame when you consider how central creativity is to the human condition. Indeed, as Erich Fromm observed, we are creatures that evolved to become creators. You only have to watch kids at play to see how innately creative they are; which is why you spend a fortune on the latest ‘must-have’ toys at Christmas only to have them play with the boxes they were (over)packed in – if you don’t believe that kids are born artists then maybe you’re prepared to give a child a crayon and let them loose on your wallpaper. Unfortunately modern consumer capitalism would rather breed consumers than creators and the creative urge is all too often suppressed, which, in turn, leads to widespread neurosis and ennui. When the creative urge is smothered it leaves a psychological void that demands to be filled; this is good news for the money men because we tend to try and rid ourselves of that empty feeling by going shopping, or by going to the movies, or by binge drinking, or by watching TV, or by playing computer games – Welcome to Generation X-Box. When you think about it, most modern activities aren’t very ‘active’ at all, they’re more like “passivities”. Small wonder that our environmentally friendly actions are by and large equally as passive; we fill our recycling bin and send it away so that somebody else can turn it into something green for us to consume just so we can feel better about our passive consumerism. We become emotionally more stable (and less likely to over-consume) when we find an outlet for our innate creativity, so we would do well to concentrate on ways to be creative with waste; thus the Uppie movement is as much a creative movement as it is a green one.

At present Upcycling is a term that is mainly used by artists, especially jewellers and sculptors, but even a cursory glance at the internet shows that there are a extensive and diverse range of existing ‘upcyclers’ even if they do not use/know the word itself. Websites like,,, or are abound with practical ideas that fit the definition perfectly and, as such, these sites should be seen as a great source of inspiration for any would-be Uppie. From traditional favourites like rag-rugs (rugs made from strips of waste fabric) to projects for true technophiles like turning an old X-Box games console into a Media Centre or Digital-Video Editing Suite, there’s something for everyone and every occasion.

My own experiences with upcycling began with computers when I visited Access Space in Sheffield ( Developed by James Wallbank, Access is the UK’s longest running Open Source Media Lab, the project works by upcycling end-of-use computers. Donated machines are made available to anyone who wants to work on an IT related project (website, digital photography/artwork, music, writing, vector art, VJ/DJing, etc. – anything that involves a computer), but who does not have access to the necessary equipment or skills. Access members are accepted on the premise that they can ask anyone else at Access for advice; in return they too shall give advice when asked. Using this skills-share technique members soon learn how to use GNU/Linux and Free Open Source Software (FOSS) to double the lifespan of an old computer – and because the software is free and the computers are donated members even get to keep the hardware they’ve been working with, which helps to bridge the technological divide and equip people with vital skills.

It became apparent that Access’s techniques could be applied to areas outside IT and as a result of subsequent discussions the Upcycling Group was born. Upcycling Groups use waste materials for arts, crafts and engineering projects as well as IT. This can bring a wonderfully diverse range of people together in the same room, people of different age groups, ethnicity and backgrounds who would otherwise never usually meet. The Upcycling Group can be seen as a workshop for Uppies. 

The jump from upcycler to Uppie is largely psychological; people who are involved with creative activities naturally tend to apply what they’ve learnt to other aspects of their lives, Uppies takes the next logical step by committing themselves to living as thoroughly an upcycled life as possible.
The basic principles of upcycling can be systematically applied to all aspects of human life. 

We have already mentioned technology; there are only two reasons why anyone really needs to own an Apple MacBook Air; ego or gadget addiction. Most computers are significantly under-used, modern computers are so powerful that the majority offices could be run from one central machine rather than banks of computers. The only people who really run out of computing power are game players (it’s that Generation X-Box need for entertainment again) or video producers (but this has more to do with a lack of available Linux/FOSS dedicated video applications). James Wallbank has introduced the Zero Dollar Laptop Manifesto ( which states the point more eloquently than I can.

Areas where consumption is driven by fashion are also areas where upcycling can be exceptionally easy to introduce. People talk about individual style and taste, but are willing to surrender their own individuality to the whims of some overpaid pretentious designer. I for one am way too vain to wear somebody else’s name on my clothing; the clothes only maketh the man if the man maketh (or upcycleth) the clothes. Every piece of ‘designer’ clothing is 100% pure wool – that is to say it is a covering for a sheep. The Uppie can choose to wear anything, from any era – whao wants to tie themselves to time? Fashion is little more than creative fascism and the Uppie is proud to stand out from the crowd, but with fashion seasons being so short-lived and fickle Uppies can also find it easy to ‘fit in’ if they so require. There are clothes in charity shops that have only been worn once if at all, it’s easy to wear second hand and still be ‘trendy’; in fact people in countries that receive donated charity clothing often remark that Westerners must be very generous to donate ‘new’ clothes.

Shelter can be provided through upcycled means, Paul King of Woodland Yurts ( once built a yurt out of a broom factory’s waste handles, but most Uppie homes and general household matters will involve some degree of compromise. Waste materials are readily available for all manner of home improvements most decorating is, once again, a matter of fashion (see previous paragraph). We may not be able to completely upcycle everything in the home, but we can apply upcycling principles to the way we do things. Washing powder can be handmade, but not, as far as I’m aware, from waste materials, so another option would be to use Soapnuts (or grow your own Soapwort Saponaria Officinalis) and once the plant has done its job the husks (leaves) can be composted. Composting is great upcycling technique, especially ‘humanure’, I mean why give your pooh to a sewer when you can give it to a salad!?! The Uppie can extend garden upcycling by using greywater collection and filtration for irrigation, if climate predictions are correct this may well become a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice.

Transport is an area where the Uppie can take full control simply by booking themselves in for a carectomy. You can produce your own fuel using upcycling methods, but most people won’t have the knowledge to keep a car on the road without visiting a garage. Bicycles on the other hand are 100% upcycleable and the knowledge needed to turn a pile of old bits into a nice ‘new’ bike can be learnt quickly and easily. In fact one Upcycling Group project involves exactly that; the ‘Earn A Bike Shop’ is a workshop that involves placing a sign on the outside of a building that reads “Earn Your FREE Bicycle Here”. Inside the ‘shop’ there’s a collection of donated/scavenged second-hand bike parts, some manuals and a ‘trainer’. All you have to do to earn your ‘free bike’ is put it together and ride it away. Some people might say that cycling is dangerous, but research shows that the singular most important thing that can be done to make cycling safer is to have more bikes on the road. What’s more cycling will make you more attractive, you’ll be fitter and you’ll have a great looking bum. 

From Lifestyle to Movement
The most important thing to an Uppie is free and open access to knowledge. If somebody develops a new use for an object then that knowledge needs to be disseminated as widely as possible (claiming ownership and attempting to distribute the ‘product’ rather than the knowledge can only encourage more blind consumerism), sites like have shown that the internet is perfect for these ends. This would encourage the development of an Uppie network, but the Uppie is no cyber-couch-potato. The Uppie that is compelled by environmental concerns knows that only our actions will make a difference and the Uppie who is driven by creative urges wants to usher in a ‘re-renaissance’ as a celebration of human inventiveness; either way the Uppie is a practical creature so any network would have to equally as practical. Therefore networks would need to be used to create supply chains for materials as well as knowledge and they could also be used to coordinate large scale (multi-Uppie) projects.

Warren Draper Creative Commons 2008/09


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