Upcycling is the process of converting old, unwanted or discarded materials into something useful and often with more value and better quality.
When the upcycling process is paired with creativity and design skills, the repurposed object’s features are preserved and infused in the final product. Due the inconsistency of the “raw” material, these handcrafted items are likely to be totally unique. They have histories and have been made into a functionally novel object, or maybe a piece of art. Furthermore, the upcycling process uses less energy than the standard glass-blowing process and reduces the quantity of material sent to landfill, meaning the products are eco-friendly and entirely sustainable.
Recycling vs. Upcycling
Recycling has a very general meaning. It does not indicate if the process will result in a higher or lower value product. Therefore, we divide the recycling process into downcycling and upcycling. The recycling process we are all familiar with would be considered downcycling, where consumer materials are normally degraded back into raw material. Most of those recycled products will require further industrial processing to become a useful product again. This process is normally industrial in scale, producing a high-volume cheap commodity. However, some products such as glass have such a low value as commodities that they can be diverted back to landfill instead of being recycled. Read more about “Glass Recycling Crisis in Australia”.
Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling; it is all about improvement. Objects are converted into functional, stylish art pieces that have an equal or superior value. The result of the upcycle process is a final product, so less energy is used. Due the complexity and creativity involved in this process, it is carried out on a small scale by crafters, designers, artists and small companies – in other words, entrepreneurs in local communities.
The Upcycling Concept
Upcycling is not a new concept. Also known as creative reuse, it is the process of transforming unwanted products to extend their life. During times of war, a lack of resources forced people to be creative and make better use of anything they had. This is still the way of life in developing countries with so many people living below the poverty line.
Due the rise in the focus on environmental awareness in the 1990’s, upcycling has become more commonplace. Standard products have been transformed into unique and sustainable items that make fashionable additions to any space. The upcycling rebirth is related to the concerns about the environment and not a lack of resources. It creates unique, stylish products with a positive impact on the environment, while empowering local communities and small businesses.
The Term ‘Upcycling’
The first recorded use of the term upcycling was by Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH in an article by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994: We talked about the impending EU Demolition Waste Streams directive. “Recycling,” he said, “I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.” He despairs of the German situation and recalls the supply of a large quantity of reclaimed woodblock from an English supplier for a contract in Nuremberg, while just down the road a load of similar block was scrapped. In the road outside his premises was the result of the Germans’ demolition “waste” recycling. It was a pinky lookin aggregate with pieces of handmade brick, old tiles, and discernible parts of useful old items mixed with crushed concrete. Is this the future for Europe? Upcycling is the title of the German edition of a book first published in English in 1998 by Gunter Pauli under the title Upsizing (the opposite of downsizing). The German edition was adapted to the German language and culture by Johannes F. Hartkemeyer, then Director of the Volkshochschule in Osnabruck. The concept was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a significant step towards regenerative design culture where the end products are cleaner, healthier, and usually have a better value than the material inputs.
For example, during the recycling process of plastics other than those used to create bottles, many different types of plastics are mixed, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid is used in the manufacturing of plastic lumber applications. However, unlike the engineered polymer ABS which hold properties of several plastics well, recycled plastics suffer phase-separation that causes structural weakness in the final product.
In 2009, Belinda Smith from Reuters wrote that upcycling had increased in the rich countries but observed that upcycling was a necessity in poorer ones.
So, what can I do to Upcycle?
Basically, anything you have no use for anymore, or even stuff you find dumped on the streets, can be upcycled.
Get started today…
Before buying something new, consider what you already have that can be upcycled to meet your needs. Before throwing things into the bin, consider other possible uses for it.
If you have no clue on how to start, try searching for upcycling on Pinterest or YouTube; there are a lot of great ideas out there. You will find even step-by-step tutorials. You can start with small projects and soon you will be mastering the upcycling trade, learning new skills and creating sustainable and original items from home decor to fashion accessories.
If you are not a handy person at all, you can still support the cause buying upcycled products. You can find heaps of upcycled items at local markets, in online stores and in speciality shops. There are so many options, styles and functions that you will never go back to conventional industrialised products. Give it a go for the environment!