Upcycle_symbolAs part of my effort to learn more about sustainable decision-making, I’m going to be looking into some of the key terms, topics and “buzz words” that often come up in discussions of sustainability. This week’s topic: “Upcycling” – what does it actually mean to “upcycle” something, and how is it helpful (or not) to humans and the environment?

So first, what is upcycling, and where does this term come from? You know the old hippy mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”? Well, if we look at those three “R”s, they’re mostly about reducing waste.

Reduce” means making/buying less new stuff in order to cut down on the amount of new, virgin resources we take from the planet, such as chopping down trees to make wood or paper products, or mining iron, aluminum and other metals.

Reuse” means eschewing “disposable” products for items that can be reused again and again instead of ending up in landfill after only one use. For example, according to the Sierra Club, using reusable grocery bags rather than plastic bags could potentially prevent 8 billion pounds of plastic per year ending up in landfills, where they take over a thousand years to decompose. That is, if they decompose at all. A study of U.S. landfills by researchers at the University of Arizona in the year 2000 found hotdogs and lettuce from the 1960s that remained completely un-decomposed due to lack of sunlight and oxygen need to break down items buried under the trash piles, so imagine how much longer it must take to break down a plastic bag under these same conditions.

Recycle” – Hopefully, by now most people are familiar with the idea of Recycling. Although, Americans still only recycle or compost about 35% of municipal solid waste, according to the EPA,  which means the rest is either burned (~11%) or just sits around in landfill (~54%). Much of that material actually could have been reused or recycled, and some of it, such as the rare earth metals (e.g., gold and platinum) used in electronic devices, is actually extremely valuable! In addition, over 95% of biodegradable materials, such as food waste and yard trimmings, end up in landfill, rather than being composted to become valuable, nutrient rich soil for use by farmers and gardeners who are in need of higher quality soil to grow healthy fruits and vegetables. So, obviously, there’s a lot more we could be recycling beyond just bottles and cans.

The problem with recycling, however, is that it takes a lot of money, water and energy to sort, wash, melt down and re-use plastic bottles, metal cans, and other recyclables (although still less than to make new ones from scratch). Plus, every time a plastic item is recycled it degrades in quality a little bit, until, after a few iterations, it’s no longer recyclable at all. This has led some environmental thinkers to re-term recycling “down-cycling” because the item becomes lower quality and less useful with each cycle.

This is where “Upcycling” comes in. Originally introduced in the 1990s in Germany, the idea is that we can break the cycle of waste by redesigning and repurposing old items by making them more useful and more valuable instead of less. This idea was first popularized in the U.S. by the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Written by two pioneers in sustainable design, this book talks about how designers, builders and manufacturers can stop the inevitable march from factory to consumer to dump by designing products and even buildings that are intended to be repurposed, or disassembled and reused once they’ve out-lived their usefulness, thus changing our consumer culture from “cradle-to-grave” to “cradle-to-cradle.”

But it’s not just big corporations that can upcycle! In my next post, I’ll be looking at a few examples of upcycling projects, large and small, (including one of my own!) as well as some of the potential pitfalls.

Stay tuned! And remember: Reduce, Reuse, UPCYCLE, Recycle! :)


EDIT: Part II is finally up! Check it out here.

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