UPCYCLING – A key component in future economic development?

2018 has been a year flooded with disastrous news on climate change and environmental degradation. As we approach the 24th global IPCC meeting arranged in Katowice, Poland, in December of 2018, a major challenge is finding ways to implement a new economic system that aligns with the environmental targets agreed on during the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Solving climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. As the climate crisis only seem to worsen, as recently expressed in WWFs ‘Living Planet Report 2018’, the immediate consequences of the way we fuel our societal welfare through exploitation of the natural systems and increased loss of biodiversity, the transition towards a circular economy seem to be inevitable.

A creative approach to shift society to one where we don’t only recycle, but begin looking at the waste as a resource, is known as ‘upcycling’. This allows us to embody the role of artists and entrepreneurs in order to find solutions by giving second life to materials that otherwise would be abolished.

This post aims to give clarity on the concept of upcycling and hopefully inspires you to rethink how reuse circularity can be incorporated into your future projects and ideas.

What is ‘upcycling’ and how does it surpass recycling?

Recycling, which most commonly refer to a process where a material is broken down to be re-created, is heavily energy consuming. In contrast, according to Belinda Goldsmiths-growing-green-trend, upcycling, avoids the process of degrading the material to its previous form (as recycling converts waste into its original conditions to be reused) and is instead all about figuring out new ways to reuse and recreate products.

The problem with recycling is that products that are processed, recycled, are only reusable for a a few times; to change our current economic system to a circular one, upcycling appears to be a key component since it allows creative design to emerge by creating products from materials that can be taken “raw” from a landfill, for instance. Which of course benefits the environment and allows the “loop to close”.

An upcycling success – TerraCycle

One of the emerging companies within the industry of upcycling, showing us that a vision of a circular economy not only is an illusion, is the U.S company TerraCycle. Founder Tom Szaky began using cookie wrappers and drink pouches to create backpacks and pencil cases.

Today, the company has expanded globally and receives waste to manufacture its products from schools, stores, clean-up groups and municipalities; to re-birth wasted materials into new innovations, TerraCycle has developed a new market as more companies see the environmental and economic gains from closing the loop. In 2016, the company reported revenues worth of $19.4 million and correspondingly $500,000 in profit according to an article by Bloomberg (2017).

Szaky expressed that the challenge for upcycling companies is about making it more convenient and cheaper; since the societies’ demand seem to be unsaturable, and a shift needs to accelerate. Thus, through a more efficient process of deconstructing and sanitizing, the company proves that it is attainable.

Is upcycling the solution to our environmental crisis or solely “Greenwashing”?

The environmental benefits from replacing a linear economic model with a circular system are many. The US National Research Council (1991) asserted that 80% of the environmental impacts are determined by the process of extracting and purifying raw materials into the designed product; further on, by creating the so called ‘closed-loop solutions’, where new innovations are created through combining different types of waste, we can eliminate the process of extracting new materials and, thereby, save enormous amounts of energy.

In an article by New York Times, a carpet company transitioning to an upcycling business model, Interface, stated that they have reduced their landfill-waste with 80% and its greenhouse gas emissions by 44% as they simultaneously saved $433 million since 1996.

What can you do?

An environmental, economical and cultural shift is needed where we move away from
over-consumption and products that are depleting our environmental resources. However, the shaping of a circular economy is not only in the hands of policy-makers and economists. Browse through our products and see if we offer a solution suitable for your company.

The circular economy makeover has started from people manifesting a new way to think, and just by changing small ways in our everyday lives, we can bring about change on a broader scale too.

Browse Google or Pinterest and you will find thousands of ideas flowing; everything from ‘do it yourself’ (DIYs). Here are 30 creative ways of how you can turn a wine bottle into a lamphead or start your own self-watered vertical farming along a wall by using plastic bottles.

Upcycling is gaining attention within architecture, arts and more clothing brands are incorporating it into their production. One particular project here in Copenhagen is the fashion designer Phine Raun who creates vintage fashion through reusing old textiles.

Designer Josephine Phine won a price in the post-consumer waste category in the
“Trash-to-Trend” competition, as the judges praised her collection that was completely
‘upcycled’ and made from recreated old Levis jeans.

Beyond practically creating upcycled products, it comes down to what we as consumers demand from corporations. As noted, the biggest energy-use comes from the production of new products; by lowering your own consumption and choosing products from brands that work within the model of a circular economy (or use upcycling as their method), you will not only support the movement forward but inspire others to do the same.

Upcycling must become a key-component in shaping our economy

As a growing number of species is declining in population and data from the the latest WWF (2018) report stresses the situation of changing the way human activity looks like; according to the report, 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have disappeared in the last 40 years.

It seems as if we have no choice but to explore and emerge into a new economic and social system where upcycling becomes the norm, and where nothing ends up as waste. It is time to take rubbish in our own hands and create value that allows a sustainable development of human and nature.

If you are new to upcycling, don’t hesitate to educate yourself further. Starting with upcycling anything you plan to throw away or maintaining a consistent style profile is a great way to go. At the end of the day, it is ourselves that should take the role of influencing this crucial sustainable development concept.

This blogpost is written by guest blogger Ulrika Hafström, Communications Officer at Plogga.

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