Upcycling: Turning Trash Into Beauty And A Sparkling Career

By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer.


When Tiffany Threadgould moved into her Philadelphia apartment in 2012, the first thing she did was trash the place.

But for Threadgould, 40, that didn’t mean making a mess. On the contrary, it’s all about discovering beauty, or at least function, in objects that might otherwise be destined for the landfill.

In her hands, CD jewel cases formed pendant lamps, paint cans became planters (and paint stirrers labels for a windowsill herb garden), and old sweaters made a cozy throw for her sofa.

Threadgould has been living in upcycled luxury since her days as a graduate student of industrial design at New York’s Pratt Institute. “My thesis was what I called ‘Trash Nouveau,’ ” she said, “taking waste and transforming it, turning it into something new, but also thinking about its past life.”

Now, Trash Nouveau is also Threadgould’s day job as head of product design at TerraCycle, in Trenton, N.J., which recycles all manner of waste, or upcycles it into consumer goods. She’s also a star of “Human Resources,” a reality TV series about the company that premiered this month on the cable channel Pivot.

Threadgould, who carries a silvery purse made of Capri Sun pouches and wears earrings she made from the X and O keys of a typewriter, can’t help taking her work home with her.

She was raised on a farm, where conservation was just part of life.

“I grew up with this mind-set of reusing and having a small footprint,” she said. “We’d compost, and that seemed normal. We’d have a really small bag of trash each month. You had to pay for waste service out in the country, like $1 a bag.”

Even after she moved to New York to work in marketing, those impulses remained, and she found a bounty of supplies right on the sidewalks.

“I was furnishing my apartment from castoffs I’d find on the street,” she said. “I found I really loved doing that, and that’s when it dawned on me that that could be a career.”

Early projects were painstaking. One prized possession she still uses today is a translucent room divider made of hundreds of 35-millimeter film canisters collected over the course of two months in New York’s photography district.

So when she interviewed at TerraCycle, the warehouse filled with trash looked, to her eyes, a lot like treasure. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god, you have unlimited materials at your fingertips, thousands of rolls of packaging, misprints, and overruns.’ ”

Now, an entire wall of Threadgould’s apartment is lined with a wine-box storage system filled with odds and ends waiting to be upcycled, plus a drill press, die cutter, and other tools to do the job.

“My first thought if I need a dining room table isn’t to go to a store,” she said. “It’s, ‘What’s an easy way to make one?'”

In this case, the “easy” way was to salvage an old door, coat it with vermilion paint, get glass panes cut to fill the recesses, and attach it to table legs from Ikea.

It’s flanked by old chairs she painted and upholstered with a patchwork of scrap fabric.

Likewise, she saw no point in buying an entertainment center when she already had a typing table and filing cabinet at home. Instead, she began shopping for assorted used end tables, created a design in Adobe Illustrator, sawed off legs until the tables fit together like a vertical jigsaw puzzle, and unified the structure with a coat of white paint.

The same logic applied to smaller projects: Old sweaters patched together become a dog bed for her Pomeranian, Tomatilla. Green-glass soda bottles and circuit boards are transformed into lamp shades. And wooden hangers are sawed in half, flipped upside down and bolted to the wall to form a clever coatrack.

As Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s founder and chief executive, explains it, these projects are not about gluing trash onto things _ they’re about identifying an item’s inherent value and unlocking new uses for it.

In the “Human Resources” pilot, in which Threadgould scrambles to create DIY projects for a coffee-table book due in June 2015 from Harper Collins, Szaky rejects those that fail to achieve that mandate, like a surprisingly stylish mirror framed with plastic knives arrayed in a starburst pattern.

Szaky said Threadgould’s team had designed about a thousand products.

“We give a lot of challenges to her group that may not be possible for upcycling: pregnancy tests and tampon applicators and weird things of that nature,” he said. Sometimes, they turn out to be possible after all, like those pregnancy tests the team members arranged to make a clock. “They’ve done a lot of really crazy things.”

Lori Anselm, another designer at TerraCycle, said an open mind was essential to this line of work.

“You need to be willing to try anything and not be afraid to physically get in there,” she said. “If we’re hiring someone, you can judge just from their reaction walking through our warehouse, which is smelly and dirty and full of trash. If they’re excited, it’s a good sign. If they’re repulsed, maybe not.”

In Threadgould’s apartment, the luminous window curtains clearly pass Szaky’s test. They’re made from old tents: The plastic hooks, it turns out, are perfect for hanging from curtain rods, while the pattern of zippers and pockets creates a serene, stained-glass effect.

“I want you to first notice the function of the item,” she said, “and then, when you look closer, to have the ‘aha’ moment”, the recognition of the object’s history.

These days, most of that creative energy is trained on TerraCycle projects: creating backpacks and notebooks out of old packaging, or “trashing” the company’s growing number of international offices with soda-bottle room dividers and bowling-alley-floor conference tables.

And recently, before flying to Los Angeles to do promotions for “Human Resources,” Threadgould made a pendant light out of the show’s cue cards. She said the material stumped her at first, but the result approaches elegance.

Still, she said, her apartment’s a work in progress. For one thing, the wall above her mantel looms conspicuously empty.

“I have plans,” she said, “to make a big mirror for that space, not out of knives, though.”

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