Why upcycling must become an economic sector

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Sinnlos sammeln und sortieren - recycling bins1Upcycling is, in general, the process where (at least) some of the shape and properties of the original waste product are retained – though not always, and we will come to that later – and where another useful product is produced from it. Though at times it might also (just) be a decorative item or a piece of art.

Ideally, however, upcycling should be about turning an item of waste into a useful item and product rather than a work of “art”. Although there are times when making artworks out of such waste is the only answer to throwing it and that is still better then than not doing that.

So why should upcycling become an economic sector then, you may ask, and part, the first part, probably, of the waste management economy.

Because recycling, as it is being done at this the present time, simply does not cut it. So-called recycling, and I am talking here about commercial recycling, mostly recycles nothing really but only downcycles. The problem with our current way of recycling is that it, actually, destroys the “waste” product and more often than not this product is not recycled but downcycled.

Glass is a prime example here where in the majority of instances, aside from being broken into fragments anyway in the first case, it is ground down to make road aggregate, a glass sand, rather than new glass. In other words they are turning it almost into the material that glass is made from in the first place, namely sand. But, as all the colors are being mixed together it is not possible to make new glass products from them, or so they say. Why not make multicolored glass tumblers and such?

Many other “waste” products in commercial recycling also are downcycled rather than properly recycled into what they originally were, hence recycling should always be the very last resort to turn to when everything else has failed. But, for some unexplainable reason, there is no infrastructure there for a proper reuse and upcycling economy, so to speak, and everyone concentrates in commercial recycling on what actually is downcycling.

Post-consumer waste paper, in most cases, is not made into new paper for writing, printing and books, but rather into packaging materials, and also paper insulation for buildings. Unlike in the German Democratic Republic where post-consumer waste paper became new paper for school exercise books, for books and for newspapers, elsewhere it is generally not post-consumer waste paper, or only between thirty to fifty percent. The rest is made up of pre-consumer waste, that is to say waste from the paper manufacturing industry and even virgin pulp. True 100% recycled paper from post-consumer waste paper is very rare and then only used for printing books, predominately paperbacks.

100% recycled sounds very good but in many cases it just is not true. This also goes for many “100% recycled” plastic products. Some beverage brands claim to have 100% recycled plastic (or 100% plant-based plastic) but when one reads the small print then one finds that the contents of the recycled (or the plant-based) is less that 40%. That does not equate 100%.

The problem is that post-consumer plastic, when remade, is not of a good enough quality for many new products, with the exception of the likes of garden furniture, and products such as benches, and others, that are made from so-called “plastic wood”. But that is a different story.

That is why upcycling has to become a main part of the equation also and especially on a commercial level, from small independent craftspeople to SMEs as recycling does recycle very little and mostly downcycles the materials. This may be good, to some extent, for the large operators and their shareholders but not for the Planet.

Some of us may have already seen the little gadget and “trick” about turning PET bottles into string that makes for an extremely strong rope. There is potential in small and larger scale recycling or upcycling of such bottles (yes, in this instance the original shape is not retained) and using the material thus garnered to make ropes, but also woven products such as mats, and others. And that is just via one simple method.

Making furniture and other things from pallet and pallet wood, as well as other “waste” wood, one could call recycling but, even this, as with the PET bottle being turned into a string, is more of an upcycling process as a product of a higher use value is being made. We are cycling the product up rather than re or down. Each and every time that we are making something better out of an item of waste rather than the same or a lower product we are upcycling.

While recycling, if it were done “properly”, is, no doubt, important upcycling is by far better and reuse, and the rest of the Rs that were discussed in a precious piece, also. That is because recycling simply, on a commercial level at least, is not done the right way, and only leads to products of a lower value and grade. It is for that reason that upcycling must become an economic activity and sector. There is a great deal of scope for it and as those products, in the main, will be made by hand they will also be made to last – or so, at least, one should hope, so as to break the cycle.

An example for an upcycling company is US-based TerraCycle, though the making of the products is outsourced to places such as Mexico, China, etc. TerraCycle “makes” a large range of different products from pre- and post-consumer waste. Another example would be Feuerwear, based in Germany, who upcycle old fire hoses into a variety of bags and such. Aside from those two there are others from very small to larger businesses in other countries, including (and especially) Third World countries, that are upcyclers, who upcycle things like bicycle inner-tubes, etc., but even combined all of those together they are but a drop in the ocean. That is to say we need more of them, many more, and upcycling must become a serious economic activity.

© 2017