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Be Careful How You Upcycle
New life grows from unusable objects Photo: bookfinch/flickr
New life grows from unusable objects. (Photo: bookfinch/Flickr)

Upcycling is a buzzword tied to sustainability that is finding its way into everything from restaurant décor to online gift shops. Craft fairs are filled with Mason jar lights, homes are built from boxcars, napkin holders are made from toilet paper rolls, and all are labeled as “Upcycled Art.”

Repurposing used items is a wonderful way to save money on materials and to spotlight our habits of creating too much disposable garbage. However, creative reuse isn’t always good for the earth. To many, “upcycling” is as simple as turning trash into treasure, but a better way to think of it is as a type of creative reuse that elevates the status of an item’s life cycle in an environmentally sustainable way.

Pallets can easily be repaired and reused as pallets, but when they are broken or cut beyond repair, they make great upcycled furniture
Pallets can easily be repaired and reused as pallets, but when they are broken or cut beyond repair, they make great upcycled furniture.

The key to turning creative reuse genius into upcycling gold is to think of the final product’s complete life cycle, and to consider what will happen when it — and all of its components — are no longer desired in their current form. This “cradle-to-cradle” approach is what makes a creation environmentally sustainable. Sourcing materials is where things get tricky. If the materials used are in no way reusable, repairable, or recyclable, then have at it! Make it more valuable than it was before and bolster up its status in the cycle of use. But better still, you can use materials that can be composted, recycled, or dismantled and reused in an infinitely continuous cycle of life.

Unfortunately, many creative reuse projects can actually turn once-recyclable or reusable items into inevitable trash. For example, plastic bottles cut up into light fixtures or plant holders are no longer recyclable. Electronic circuit boards get transformed into jewelry or attached to wood and other items that e-waste recyclers would turn away. Likewise with textiles: Instead of using tattered or stained T-shirts, perfectly wearable ones that could clothe the needy are sewn into pillows. Seashells glued to glass bottles, metals permanently adhered to non-metal materials, or paper and cardboard covered with tape or glue are all common reuse projects that turn a once-valuable, recyclable object into a landfill-bound piece of garbage.

The recycling process itself can be confusing. Recycling is a business that uses people and machines to extract massive amounts of high-quality, like-materials, bundle them, and resell them to a manufacturer that can remelt or repulp them into new commodities. Adhering two materials that aren’t the same renders them impossible, too costly, or too hazardous to strip and resell — and thus unrecyclable.

Plastic bottles that have been modified are no longer recyclable Photo: Reciclado Creativo/flickr
Plastic bottles that have been modified are no longer recyclable. (Photo: Reciclado Creativo/Flickr)

The biggest downside to upcycling waste is it enables our continued use of disposable objects. There are commendable companies that temporarily reduce waste by making purses, wallets, business card holders, and more from candy bar wrappers, chips bags, apple sauce squeeze pouches, and other hard-to-recycle materials. While this can relieve the guilt of creating packaging waste on such a massive scale (especially by the corporations creating the waste), we still need to be aware that these items are bound for the landfill someday. Major change can only come from eliminating disposable packaging.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t continue to support upcycling, and find ways to incorporate more sustainable creative reuse projects into our purchasing and making habits. The more we know about the full life cycle of different materials — how they are put together, taken apart, and broken down — the more we can empower our decisions to ultimately change the waste behaviors of our society.

The principals of sustainable upcycling can and should extend beyond creative reuse projects and into our planning process for making all new items and commodities. From packaging to function, production process, shipment, by-product waste, environmental and social impact of material sources, and of course the cradle-to-cradle life cycle for the final product, all decisions along the creative process can be made with the environment in mind.

Eye-catching life extension for landfill-bound packaging Photo: Carissa Rogers/flickr
Eye-catching life extension for landfill-bound packaging. (Photo: Carissa Rogers/Flickr)

10 thoughts on “Be Careful How You Upcycle

  1. A complaint in search of a problem.

    People are making their recyclable trash into things they can use again, creating a product that is worth more than the sum of its parts, and extending the usage of the materials beyond one use.

    If I take a bunch of water bottles and turn them into flowers, I make a profit, and the buyer enjoys a piece of decorative art. Creating something that is worth more than the sum of its parts is called creating value.

    Last I checked, the recycling companies were not non-profits and run by volunteers. They’re companies who are profiting from our contribution. So what is the moral imperative which prevents upcyclers from profiting from what the packaging providers are intending to be disposable?

    Remember also that reuse and resale of these items likely replaces the consumption of new items, and by extension reduces disposable packaging.

    1. Yep. Compound this with the fact that cheap oil = less incentive for recycling companies to recycle some plastics, and we have a real problem. If making flowers out of plastic bottles gets my kids thinking about the waste stream then it’s a net gain.
      Plastic isn’t as easily recyclable as the post makes it seem. There’s a lot more to it than just melting it and turning it into something new- it needs to be collected, sorted, cleaned, melted and it also usually needs plasticizers and other chemicals added to make it an attractive product for industry.
      My biggest problem with current recycling is curb side pick up. Take a walk early one trash day and see how full your neighbors’ recycling containers are. Most folks don’t want to wait until the can is completely full so they put it out every week. This means a heavy diesel truck has to come to a complete stop, idle while it picks up and dumps the can and then expend more fuel to resume its travel, only to repeat the process in 50 feet. If those cans have a dozen water bottles, a week’s worth of newspaper and some junk mail in them, how green is it really? When we consider all the extra costs of recycling, both financial and environmental, does it help or hinder the environment? I’m not anti-recycling, I just think we really need to take a holistic approach.
      Live the example! Stop buying disposable plastic junk! Stop using disposable products. Instead of drinking that hipster pale ale from the microbrewery buy something on draft (or just quit drinking). If you smoke, stop buying pre-packaged filtered cigs and roll your own (or just quit smoking). Learn to use a water fountain. Before you buy the latest iGadget think if you really need it. The computer you are reading right now is worse for the environment than all the upcycled plastic flowers in your town, and there’s at least one in every household. The national switch to digital TV, programs like Cash for Clunkers and the impending switch to digital radio are horrible for the environment because they remove the choice from the consumer and turn usable technology into instant junk.
      Change comes from the bottom up, not from high horses down.

      1. Excellent points!

        Thank you for posting this!

        I wonder how hard it would be to do a cost/benefit analysis on recyclables for garbage trucks stop/starting eternally.

        My understanding on recycling was that the only recyclable that was a net gain was aluminum which melts easily and allows easy removal of slag. Most of the other recyclables (glass included for some reason) cost more fuels than they save to process them to recyclability.

        1. The reality is that no one wants to do that cost analysis. It would show that the emperor has no clothes.

          The greatest example of green recycling/reuse was the Heineken bottle brick. Unfortunately, it never made it past the prototype stage. In the end, upcycling done right is far greener than industrial, capital driven recycling.

          1. I’d never heard of the bottle brick, it’s a brilliant idea and a glimpse into what companies can to do reduce waste and increase the actual value of their product.

            A container that you use the contents of, and then viably resell to people.

            This has really kicked up my imagination…

          2. Love all the awesome points you are bringing up! My ultimate recommendation is that an artist or Maker take a look at all the options when turning to the massive trash pile for inspiration, and creating beauty and life from items whose only option were the landfill. Or, to keep in mind the full life-cycle of their work of art, and assembling works that can be deconstructed for further use when no longer needed in their current form.

            When a teacher plants seeds for a class of 30, they can choose to reuse 30 yogurt cups that can be rinsed of dirt and recycled when the seeds are grown, instead of creating a one-time reuse project for 30 plastic bottles that might have been recycled into a soccer jersey. While a cut up bottle with a plant growing in it on your porch is better than a bottle in the ocean or a brand new plastic pot with a plant in it, isn’t a second-hand clay planter better even still? We have so many options when digging through discards, and some are more environmentally sustainable than others.

            I really love your points about the inefficiencies of many current curbside pickup programs. Recycling companies operate on marginal profits, especially with the new Green Wall imposed by the Chinese market. The one way to increase efficiency and reduce secondary pollution and costs with curbside recycling is to increase participation and correct disposal through proper education. You’re very right about waiting to put out a full bin for collection. In cities like New York where the average waste stream is 34-40% recyclable, but the average amount recycled is only 15%, there’s a lot of potential to reduce billions of tax dollars wasted through improper disposal.

            While I don’t want to discourage anyone from creative reuse, I’d like to point out the alternative options. We have choices we can make when teaching our children and society about the value of commodities and the cycle of production and consumption from a holistic approach. A large part of that is taking the time to consider the full potential of your medium, and planning the most valuable path for the greatest environmental impact. Please keep this discussion going! We all have so much to learn from each other.

  2. i agree with fletch that things are way more complicated than presented here. recycling is not a particularly transparent business and as fletch pointed out, it’s driven mostly by financial motivations. as soon as it will make financial sense to use every wooden splinter, no one will care if the pallet still looks like a pallet.

    but for the current situation, you have to consider the volumes of material going into diy, upcycling, repurposing, repairing (you name the term) – they are ridiculously small. it’s as if liechtenstein (or, say, wyoming in the us) stopped needing energy to sustain life – it would be remarkable, noble, groundbrekaing (you name the term, again), but it would have absolute zero impact on the worldwide energy consumption.

    from my perspective you’re pointing your finger at a non-problem.

  3. The problem I find here, you ultimately suggest doing nothing and continuing to contribute to the growing waste and garbage in the world is better than trying to “find other ways to live”.
    As an #upcycler and I hit up second hand stores and garage sales for materials. Reusing and reselling items from existing materials extend the materials’ lifecycle, contribute to the economy and create jobs all without making new stuff from new resources.
    The amount of trash constantly created in this world is far greater a problem and upcycling a step to address that problem.

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Alyson Schill is the Sustainability Coordinator for Maker Faire, and works with many nonprofits in New York and Los Angeles to reduce waste through recycling, upcycling, and composting. Her primary focus is change through education and community empowerment.

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