Tuesday, May 17, 2011

U is for Upcycle...

What is upcycling?  How is recycling defined?  And, aren't upcycling and recycling the same? 

Let's start with the more familiar, recycling.  Recycling, is also called downcycling, because it involves converting materials and products into new materials of lesser quality.  Most recycling converts or extracts useful materials from a product, and results in the creation of a lesser quality product.  Plastics are a good example because during the process of recycling, different types of plastics may be mixed together creating a hybrid, which is often a lesser grade material.  Similarly, used office paper is not converted into new office paper, but is reused to produce different materials such as paperboard. 

According to dictionary.com, recycling is defined as: 1- to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse: recycling paper to save trees; 2 - to alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of: The old factory is being recycled as a theater.

Upcycling, a less familiar and relatively newer term, is not as widely used, but is coming into vogue.  The first recorded use of the term "upcycling" was in 1994.  Since then, it's been popularized in several books, including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  In the book, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart explain that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones.  This concept results in the reduction of new raw materials used to create new products, and also results in less energy use, and less pollution.  Doesn't this remind you of the definitions of  recycling?  According to Wikipedia, upcycling is "the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value."    But who determines if a new material or products has a better quality, or a higher environmental value? 

Some argue that in the strictest sense, upcycling is the recycling of a material to produce a fresh supply of the same material.   Based on this definition of upcycling, the processing of aluminum cans, glass, and newsprint into new cans, bottles, and newsprint is the closest to a purist upcycling model because the cycle can continue endlessly, and the processes save huge amounts of energy when compared to making products from virgin materials. 

I submit that the purist definition of upcycling should be the goal.  Wouldn't it be an amazing if humans could figure out how to stop extracting oil to run their cars, and manufacture plastic this and thats?  Imagine being able to continually reuse, recycle, or upcycle all the existing plastic that is omnipresent instead of making new plastic from oil?  We're not there yet..but with incentives, research, and collaborative, diplomatic efforts between countries worldwide we could be there.  

Does it really matter if the definition of recycling, "to alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of" is very similar to the purist definition of upcycling, “recycling materials to produce a fresh supply of the same material"? 

Perhaps we should just simplify, and quote Benjamin Franklin’s, “Waste not, want not”…Or maybe we should recycle all these definitions, meld them together, and add in a sprinkling of new upcycling verbiage.  The new and improved melded definition of upcycling would read:

Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products, or reusing otherwise hard-to-recycle items, into new materials or products of equal or better quality, or a higher environmental value.  Purist upcycling results in the recycling of materials to produce a fresh supply of the same material, with little or no degradation of the material (ie. aluminum, newsprint, glass).   The goal of all upcycling is to prevent the waste of potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones, the reduction of new raw materials used to create new product, resulting in conservation of energy during production, and the reduction of pollution.    

Rebagz stylish upcycled bag
There are plenty of examples of upcycled products and companies working towards providing useful products that have less of an impact on the environment.  These companies, and their products can serve as fantastic models for other companies big and small to emulate.  Some of my favorite examples are Terracycle, Inc.,  Rebagz®, Polartec, and Artsy Fartsy.

TerraCycle Inc., an international company that I've written about in the past, turns hard-to-recycle items into eco-friendly products, and reuses items otherwise bound for the landfill such as M&M packages, chip bags, Capri Sun juice pouches, flip-flops, pull-tabs, cookie wrappers, etc.   From these unlikely "raw materials", they make useful, products such as totes, pencil cases, kites, purses, and more.  It is their ingenious use of hard-to-recycle materials plus ingenuity that has propelled TerraCycle to the forefront of the Upcycling movement. 
Rebagz®, created by Marty Stevens-Heebnerline, is another example of how fashionable upcycling can be.  Rebagz® unique, chic bags are made from nylon rice sacks, and juice packs, and have been featured in InStyle, More, and Marie Claire magazines, as well as on The Today Show. Rebagz® are redefining fashion one bag at a time, with "Style. Strength. Sustainability".   Making upcycling fashion-forward and chic, launches Rebagz® to the top of my wish list, and these bags will definitely be added to my wishlist!

Veteran upcycler Polartec®, has been offering recycled Polartec® Classic fabrics since 1993.  Polarfleece®, the #1 selling fleece brand, is a household name where temperatures get chilly.    Polartec® continues their quest to reduce their overall footprint, and Polartec, LLC and Unifi have announced a new partnership introducing performance fabrics made with REPREVE 100. The new eco-engineered REPREVE 100 is made from 100% post-consumer waste (clear plastic water bottles).   Polartec® is committed to saving energy, reducing their reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels, reducing the amount of waste put into landfills, as well as harmful emissions deposited into the atmosphere.  Watch a video on their amazing eco-engineering to learn more about their ingenious product, and you'll learn more about why they have catapulted to top of the fleece market.

Even small cottage industries know how to upcycle creatively, and sell distinctive eco-inspired pieces!  Artist and designer, Susi DuPuis, took the saying, "One man's (or woman's) trash, is another man's (or woman's) treasure", and allowed her imagination to soar.  She is the brainchild behind the creative jewelry collection called "Artsy Fartsy, recycled plastic jewelry", and her creations are inventive, colorful, and fun.  Check out her collection of funky, eye-catching jewelry made from common household plastic containers.  If you look closely enough you may even spot a logo or two.  Artsy Fartsy's "green bling", often launches conversations about the importance of reusing resources in a new ways, and recycling with a functional element. 

From my perspective, no matter how you slice it, shred it, dice it, crush it, or reuse it, both recycling and upcycling, result in the reduction of the use of raw materials, the use of less energy to produce goods, and the prevention of huge amounts of material from an eternity in a landfill entombed in a toxic melting pot.  And since that's the ultimate goal, it doesn’t really matter whether we interchange the words recycling and upcycling :)

Sources: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/recycling

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