There are lots of resources to be found in things we have used and no longer need. Plastic bottles can be made into fleeces, used diapers turned into roofing felt and old tires into new ceilings. The Danish Architecture Centre’s Wasteland exhibition highlights the opportunities of upcycling – the clever form of recycling.

Upcycling is recycling taken to a new level. Here, waste materials are used both for new purposes and to improve new materials – such as when new concrete is mixed with crushed concrete to make it even stronger or bricks from demolished houses in rural areas are used in sustainable new buildings in the city. With upcycling, waste can become a new form of architecture and may even be the solution to the global resource shortage.

It’s also fascinating to see what can be made from the things that we used to just throw away. Iron, concrete, plastic, wood and glass can go from being household waste and surplus products to forming part of enhanced materials in new buildings or taking on completely new forms and functions.

In fact, you can build entire urban areas using only upcycled materials, without sacrificing design or hitting the developer’s pocket. The exhibition contains examples of upcycled construction that not only looks beautiful, it also makes optimum use of resources such as rainwater and sunlight. Sound expensive? It isn’t. Sustainable construction can cost exactly the same as conventional methods, but with a much lower environmental impact.

“People are creatures of habit, who think that sustainability and economic growth are mutually exclusive. We, on the other hand, see them as being mutually dependent,” says architect Anders Lendager of sustainable construction company Lendager Group, which, together with the Danish Architecture Centre, is behind the exhibition. “Upcycling is about creating growth through cost-neutral sustainability. An alternative that costs no more than the current approach.”

Lendager is keen to demonstrate a good business case for upcycling. Quite simply that it’s really worth considering the circular economy and reuse of resources, both for those constructing buildings and those who will be living in them.

“It’s about seeing the business potential in upcycling and the circular economy,” Lendager says. “There are more and more people in the world, and they are increasingly living in cities. As the cities grow, CO2 emissions increase, but with the circular economy, where resources are reused, we can create growth and reduce CO2 emissions by well over 50%, without sacrificing the lifestyle we want.”

“If we utilize local resources and develop global processes for recycling waste, our cities can be part of the solution instead of the problem.”

As well as demonstrating how construction waste can be reused in new contexts, the exhibition also shows what ordinary waste can become. Who knew, for example, that you could make a smartphone speaker out of a milk carton or a cool lampshade out of an egg tray or a fashion magazine? Or that 350 pâté containers can be turned into a new bicycle? One man’s trash, another man’s treasure.

Wasteland is opened until April 17, 2017.

Dansk Arkitektur Center, Strandgade 27B, København

This article is written by Lise Hannibal and was featured in SAS’ magazine ‘Scandinavian Traveller’ on March 28, 2017.