The best features in recycling
Up, up and away!
Reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose and now upcycle… the latest ‘green’ word is taking the world by storm. But just what is upcycling? Lucy Meek finds out
Upcycling has existed for a long time, often practised in situations where raw materials are scarce. When the Romans used broken plates in the foundations of new homes, it was upcycling; and when resource-aware ancestors made quilts from worn-out clothes, that too was upcycling. However the term itself is relatively new to our language. It was coined by Reiner Pilz in 1994 as he discussed the Germans’ overzealous attitude to recycling. “I call it downcycling”, he said, referring to the recycling of perfectly good and reusable building materials. “What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.”
If you haven’t heard of it before, think of upcycling as the middle ground between reuse and recycling. Reuse entails using an object again without altering it – whether for its original function or a new one. Recycling involves breaking down a product into its raw materials and creating something new. Upcycling, on the other hand, goes one better than recycling – it turns a waste item into something of higher value, without destroying or degrading any of the materials used. The term’s antithesis, downcycling, is of course exactly the opposite – the recycling of a material into something of lower value, for example the mixing of low-grade plastics to create lumber substitute, used to make outdoor benches and kerbstones (amongst other things).
To complicate the definition slightly, upcycling can come in many different guises, and in fact encompasses a whole range of activities: from mass-produced products to one-off, handmade items, to boutique sales and even art. Michelle Reader, an artist based in London, creates sculptures using waste materials. “When I graduated from university I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was just using what I could find”, she explains. “A lot of my work is to promote recycling and upcycling... so it’s about making as little impact ecologically with my work as possible and trying to reuse as much as I can.” One of her most interesting pieces is a family portrait made from a month’s worth of the household’s rubbish, which she produced for Epsom and Ewell Borough Council to promote their new kerbside collection scheme.
Other interesting examples of upcycling abound, many of them to be found in the fashion industry: Hairy Growler creates unique jewellery pieces from old pennies and cutlery; Worn Again recycles old Eurostar uniforms and seat covers into Eurostar-branded train managers’ bags, which are then sold back to the company in a brilliant example of a closed-loop waste solution; and TRAIDremade, a branch of the charity TRAID, upcycles discarded clothes into higher-quality, more fashionable items for sale in their shops. At TRAID, the money earned is then used to counter exploitation and inequality in the global textile industry. “We have three charitable objectives”, Mike Webster, the charity’s National Recycling Development Manager, tells me. “One is to divert textiles from landfill, the other one is to fight global poverty… and thirdly we talk to people about the impact of consumption.”
Another success story is US company Terracycle, which specialises in both recycling and upcycling waste, usually from niche streams that aren’t commonly collected from kerbsides. The company finds use for both pre- and post-consumer waste – the former donated by companies and the latter sent in the post from organised ‘brigades’ of people, such as families or schools. Postage is covered by the waste-providing companies, along with a two pence donation to charity per item sent, helping Terracycle’s UK branch save over seven million waste units from landfill and raise £84,000 for charity since it opened two years ago.
In Terracycle’s model, post-consumer waste is recycled (or, some would say, downcycled): melted down and pelletised, for sale to external companies who will reformulate it into new plastic products. “It means you don’t then need to create new raw materials”, says Stephen Clarke, Terracycle UK’s Public Relations Manager. “So we can melt down things like pens, or toothbrushes, a Kenco eco-refill pack or even a Johnson’s baby wipes pack, and then we can turn it into things like waste bins, or watering cans, or garden paving, or even benches for the garden.”
Pre-consumer waste, such as misprinted or surplus packaging, on the other hand, is upcycled. “We can turn that into things like pencil cases, purses, tote bags, Johnson’s baby wipes materials into baby bibs, a whole host of things. And so again you’re giving something a use that would have ended up in landfill, and again you’re not needing to use raw materials.”
In an ideal world, all the waste received by Terracycle would be upcycled, but the cost of preparing post-consumer waste for upcycling compared with just recycling it compromises the cost-effectiveness. “If you can imagine, some of the material that we get back is quite dirty”, explains Clarke. “So we can upcycle from the post-consumer waste as well, it’s just most expensive... it would be great if we could upcycle absolutely everything that comes back to us, but it’s just so costly that there’s not the benefit there to be honest.”
Recycling’s more fashionable sibling is surging in popularity, though, and it’s easy to see why. The materials to make upcycled items frequently cost next to nothing, and prices can skyrocket where popular items are in limited supply. Etsy, the online handmade and vintage marketplace, currently has 124,000 products tagged with the word ‘upcycled’ – compared with just 7,900 in 2010. Items range from necklaces made out of old tee-shirts and handbags made out of books, to envelopes made out of old maps, clocks made out of bicycle wheels, and blackboards made out of old shutters.
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