From trash to treasure

22 April 2012 - 02:42
By Tiara Walters

Taking junk destined for the landfill and turning it into valuable things that people want

Recycling matters. But ultimately, this process simply keeps an object off the dump a little longer. You can, for instance, re-use a plastic bag only so many times before it becomes so degraded that it's no longer worth recycling, and must meet the fate of any old junk - unless you upcycled it.

Rather than condemning something to the recycle bin and, eventually, landfill, upcycling is an exuberant act of the imagination, the magical ability to remake the world in surprising and lateral ways.

In the upcycler's eyes, a Ricoffy tin stripped of its labelling becomes a contemporary lampshade - the perfect industrial accent in an urban penthouse loft; a Rooibos teabag is transformed into a delicate floral pendant; found wire is expertly coiled into the face of an antique-style wall clock, complete with ticking arms and Roman numerals.

And now the Cape Craft and Design Institute's latest Handmade Collection reveals just how resourceful upcyclers can be. Launched in 2009, the collection has grown into a stunning showcase of the province's most inventive and finely finished craft. This year the organisers received 264 entries and, of the 67 finally included in the collection, at least 21 are upcycled items. They may be handcrafted, but they're not exactly the kind of item you'll pick up at any old platteland market.

Fetching R12 000, Strand artist Jeanette Gibson's one-off folding chair is as exquisite as it is pricey - the perfect example of how we can reduce our landfill sites by turning trash into a sought-after, valuable commodity.

"Who would ever throw away a tyre if they knew that, with skill and an eye for creative possibility, it could earn them a couple of thousand rand?" says Marjorie Naidoo, the 2012 Handmade Collection's organiser. "Such products can change mindsets. People realise how a designer can upcycle discarded items in a way that creates real, new value - collectible pieces for which discerning buyers are prepared to pay considerable sums."

Gibson's folding chair looks like it was painstakingly crafted from needle lace, but it was, in fact, woven from recycled car tyres: "The tyre is stripped, and thin rubber threads taken out of it in order to weave the seating area. The entire process took six months," she says. "I was inspired by my travels in Mozambique, where people throughout the country use tyre threads to join the structure of their homes."

Another standout in this year's collection is Cape Town architect Anthony Martin's "Bush Fire Table" (R8550), upcycled from a weathered old shipping crate. At first glance, the piece defies logic - a wooden coffee table with a fire crackling at the heart of it. It's an arresting illusion in which it seems the licking flames might consume the dry, surrounding wood. But, as Martin explains, his creation is perfectly safe, and sane.

"There's no danger of the wood catching fire during normal use," he points out. "The table contains a specially designed stainless-steel tub into which you pour the bio-ethanol, light it and it burns for about an hour. The nice thing about bio-ethanol is that the flame is not that hot - you can actually put your hand through it - and the burner doesn't heat up to the point where it can burn the wood. The area underneath the table is completely open so all the heat escapes through there."

If Lewis Carroll were a contemporary artisan, he most likely would have created, and been fascinated by, the strikingly imaginative upcycled works in this year's Handmade Collection: "battle-worn" toy sharks fashioned from shirts and trousers (R1250); a larger-than-life king protea made from old wire, antique cotton thread and recycled magazine paper (R6000); and a fully reversible, laminated skirt constructed without a single stitch (R3450).

Says CCDI director Erica Elk: "Given Cape Town's nomination as World Design Capital 2014, there is renewed interest locally and from around the world in our creative people and products. The Handmade Collection is a wonderful opportunity for craft producers and designers to show just how bold and skilled they can be."

  • Visit to view the 2012 Handmade Collection and order from the artists.

TELL US: Have you created something interesting from upcycled waste? E-mail


Today is Earth Day and there seems no better way to celebrate the occasion than spending some time outdoors. After all, when we camp, nature refreshes our souls, gives us good health and clears our heads. Campers, on the other hand, don't always reciprocate in kind. Witness the unseparated mess of dirty roller towels, food packets, compostable leftovers and greasy paper plates overflowing from the campsite bin because there are no recycling facilities nearby. Of course, none of this would matter so much if all our waste were 100% biodegradable, like this 24cm compostable plate from Green Home (R72 for a pack of 50, Made from sugar-cane waste, straw and wood pulp, it's freezer safe, GM-free and contains no chlorine. Plus it's 100% biodegradable - so, consider investing in a pack of these and leave your campsite, and conscience, a little cleaner.


Do you have what it takes to win the Sunday Times Lifestyle/Green Life Photographer of the Year Award?

The winner and runners-up will receive top photographic prizes worth R140000 courtesy of Canon. We will also publish a monthly winner, who will win a R5000 cash prize, courtesy of the Sunday Times and Avusa.

Winning entries will be judged for their originality, authenticity, impact and technical skill. The subject can be anything environmental: it could be an image that captures the beauty of our natural world, any aspect of green living, or one that highlights threats to our planet.

The photographer of the year will win a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR, an EF 24-105mm F4.0 L IS USM lens and an EF 70-300mm F4.0-5.6 L IS USM lens worth R50998. The two runners-up will each win a set of photographic equipment worth R41598: a Canon EOS 7D DSLR, an EF-S 15-85mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM lens and an EF 100-400mm 4.5-5.6 L IS USM lens. The overall winner and two runners-up will be announced in Lifestyle in December.


Send your entries to For full competition details, visit and click the "like" button at the top of the page or visit