Upcycling for Your Classroom or Makerspace

A person-like figure made out of cardboard.

If you’re a teacher or librarian, you need supplies. Supplies cost money. Because you work in education, you don’t have any money. So you spend your personal money, which you don’t have, to buy these supplies.

A meme with one of the characters from The Help that says "You is broke. You is tired. You is a teacher."

This is where upcycling can help you.

Upcycling is basically recycling, but the goal is to use the original item in a way that you end up creating something that has more value than the original thing.

What’s this have to do with my classroom or makerspace?

Makerspaces and STEAM labs are great places for students to explore and tinker. We want to fill our spaces with the latest and greatest coding and robotics activities that are available…but they aren’t cheap. Not only do you have to purchase them, but they often require having external devices like tablets or computers. Plus, you have to account for batteries and replacing pieces that break.

If you’ve got the funding for those activities, go for it! If not, or you’d like a little variety, I encourage you to incorporate some low-tech options. That’s where the upcycling comes in. You can give your students basic supplies that you’d be recycling anyway, and let them use their imagination to create something useful.


Before you get started, figure out your storage situation. The space you have will determine the types and sizes of materials you can collect. Also, consider whether the materials will be out and easily accessible to students at all times, or if you’re going to have to haul it out and put it away when you want to use it.

All of the links you’ll see below are affiliate links, which means I may make a small commission if you purchase through them. I make a point of only posting items I think would be of use to you, because I don’t believe in spamming and wasting people’s time.

These are some storage solutions I’ve seen that might be helpful if you’re getting started.

Storage Tub

Toy Storage Bins

Cube Storage

Rolling Cart

Compact Bin/Box Transporter

What types of materials can I upcycle?

Here’s a list to get you started, but by no means is it exhaustive:

  • Cardboard
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Milk jugs
  • Egg cartons
  • Plastic to-go containers
  • Plastic bottles
  • Glass bottles
  • Scrap fabric
  • Old jeans
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Craft supplies

For the love of all that is good, please remind your students that these materials must be CLEANED before they’re brought in to school. You do not want food residue attracting bugs and wildlife. Also, milk jugs need to be rinsed out and allowed to dry with the CAP OFF. If you don’t do this, it will smell like death. Save yourself the trauma.

A note about cardboard

Cardboard is an amazing, versatile material. It also takes up a lot of storage space, so make sure you have a plan for it. The sturdier it is, the harder it is to cut. If you have young students, you may need to request thinner cardboard, like cereal boxes. If not, you’ll be having to handle the cutting.

These are some tools that are helpful when it comes to cardboard:

Cardboard Scissors

Automatic Cutter

Cardboard Saw

Makedo Cardboard Construction Kit for Kids

But what do I do with all these supplies?

How much you want to guide your students is up to you. For example, you could just set them loose with the supplies and see what they create. You could also issue a challenge, and let them figure out what they need to create to finish it. Also, you can have a specific project in mind where you give them the supplies they need and the directions they have to follow.

Here are some of our librarians demonstrating their upcycling skills:

Get Creating!

The possibilities are endless! As long as you’ve got some tape, glue, and scissors on hand, your students can create whatever they can imagine. Hot glue works wonders, too.

I have a Pinterest board that I update frequently with new ideas for upcycling and makerspaces. You can check it out here.

If you come across any great lessons or ideas that involve upcycling, please share them with me on Twitter or Pinterest.

Pieces of cardboard that say reduce, reuse, and upcycle.

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