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Extraordinary Upcyclers

What is Upcycling?

Upcycling is when an artist takes materials that might have otherwise been thrown out (like old clothes, jars, newspapers, or even bicycle inner tubes!) and turns them into something new and beautiful. As more people learn about the environmental challenges our world is facing due to pollution and waste, upcycling has become popular among everyone from young children to professional artists. In fact, just this summer, the Hopewell Valley Arts Council put on a Junkyard Upcycle Art Exhibition where artists of every level could share their upcycled projects. I was completely blown away by some of the work I saw, including these mannequins from TerraCycle made from corks and coffee pods: 

The Upcycle Challenge

Here at MCL’s Lawrence Branch, kids and teens can try their hand at upcycling by participating in our weekly Upcycle Challenges. Each week, a new challenge is presented, such as “create a piece of art containing a secret coded message” or “design and build a desk organizer.” Patrons can use any of the materials provided on our new creative reuse makercart to complete the challenges. 

Each participant receives a logbook where we will add color photos of the projects they complete. 

Everyone also gets to decorate a pin for our leaderboard. Once you complete ten challenges, you can move your pin up to the next color. 

Beginning September 9, Upcycle Challenges will take place at the Lawrence Branch every Thursday at 3:30pm. You can register through the MCL Calendar of Events (registration opens at 7am on the day of the program). The calendar will also describe the challenge of the week, so feel free to participate from home using your own upcycled materials. If you email me a picture of a challenge you complete from home, I’ll add it to your logbook (or set up a new logbook for you if it’s your first challenge). 


For more upcycling inspiration, check out these titles from the MCL collection: 

Stories about Upcyclers:

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall 

In this chapter book, a young teen is sentenced to community service helping a man who collects junk around the neighborhood. 

The Color Collector by Nicholas Solis 

In this picture book, a young boy befriends a new girl after becoming curious about the items she collects on her way home from school each day. 

Magic Trash by J.H.Shapiro 

This picture book is the true story of Tyree Guyton and how he became an upcycling artist. 

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul 

This picture book is the true story of Isatou Ceesay and how she worked with other Gambian women to boost their local economy by recycling plastic bags into purses and selling them to customers around the world. 

Project Ideas and Instructions:

Trash to Treasure: A Kid's Upcycling Guide to Crafts by Pam Scheunemann 

A fun and comprehensive guide for kids on upcycling with all kinds of materials, from scrap paper to tin cans. 

Making Art from Anything by Robin Johnson 

This simple non-fiction text teaches early readers about many non-traditional materials people can use to make art, including trash. It includes lots of inspiring photos. 

Trash Origami by Michael G. Lafosse 

Learn 25 origami projects you can create out of old magazines, food wrappers, and more. 

62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer by Randy Sarafan 

Find innovative ideas and instructions for projects using old, dead computers. Project categories range from fashion accessories to musical instruments and beyond. Recommended for older kids and teens. 

TRASHEDart Contest

Every April for the past decade, the Lawrence Branch has offered a TRASHEDart contest. Teens in grades 7-12 and adults can submit their upcycled art and compete with fellow patrons from around Mercer County. The idea of winning is thrilling, but it may be even more exciting to simply have a platform to share your art and see what fellow upcyclers around the county have been creating. The 2021 contest has ended, but I strongly encourage you to visit the website and see what this year’s talented contestants made out of buttons, pistachio shells, and more!

Visible Mending

If you’re especially interested in upcycling old clothing and fabric, you should also consider attending the Lawrence Branch’s monthly Visible Mending program. Here, you can bring in your favorite old clothes and learn how to give them new life by adding embroidered patches; darning holes; or covering up stains artistically with fabric markers and paint. See the MCL Calendar of Events for details and registration. You can also find my video on Sashiko mending on MCL’s YouTube Channel, and explore the accompanying resource list of books and websites related to Sashiko.

Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait to see your upcycled creations!

- by Miss Molly, Lawrence Branch

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