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'Upcycling' is taking recycling to a higher level

You already know what  recycling  is. Soon you will start hearing more about upcycling. No, it doesn’t involve going up a steep hill on a bike. Upcycling is one of the focuses of this week's Seattle Design Festival and a good example of what it is can be found in an old wooden warehouse in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood. 

It use to be a place where ships were built. Today, this is where elaborate lampshades are made out of cardboard.

Some look like upside-down baskets, others could be 3-D models of DNA lit from within. The company is called Gray Pants and Alan Marrero is one of the eight people who work here.

"We get all of our materials for free right here in SODO."

The corrugated pieces of cardboard are sliced into thin strips by a laser cutting machine. Then the cardboard is assembled back together with glue into varying shapes and patterns, like a layer cake.

“We play with the direction that the corrugation is going so that we can have random patterns and textures. Our secret ingredient is Elmer’s Glue. It's strong and it dries clear."

The pendants sell anywhere from $200 to $2,500 and they are a perfect example of what upcycling is all about: Rather than using resources to break down a plastic bottle to turn it into a fleece, upcycling doesn’t process the original object very much, if at all.

Another small warehouse down the road from Gray Pants, called Alchemy Goods, is making messenger bags, wallets and belts out of busted bicycle tubes. Some of the tubes still have patches on them. Eli Reich is the company’s owner. His business card is made out of rubber.

"Right now we are saving more than 80,000 bicycle tubes a year."

These and other upcycled products will be on display at the Seattle Design Festival.

The four-day event will feature everything from the latest in furniture and houses to graphic design. Seattle’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects is one of the festival’s sponsors. Lisa Richmond is its executive director and predicts upcycling will be a practice that designers and architects will have to adopt eventually.

“As we move forward in our cities, we have no choice but to think creatively about how we reutilize and improve the things we already have'because we won't have the space or the resources to completely destroy and create things. Upcycling will be an important part of our future.”

Richmond points to the popular High Line park in New York, which sat for years as an old, unused elevated train track as an example of how upcycling can work with buildings. Meanwhile, business is doing so well at Gray Pants, the company is opening up an office in Amsterdam.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.