Posts Tagged ‘recycling’

by T. Caine

Over the last decade the term “Upcycling” has been coined and worked into the discourse of sustainability efforts. It appeared in William McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle. It has yet to earn itself mainstream popularity, but its necessity as a goal for how we should be progressing makes its definition important. Like so many things in sustainability, I come across many enthusiasts who are trying to promote the practice but may be passing around an incorrect meaning.

We all know what the basis of Recycling is: a practice that takes an item and targets it for reuse, returning it back to the cycle of daily contribution to society rather than discarding it to trash. Going to the dictionary for confirmation renders the following:

  • to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse: recycling paper to save trees
  • to alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of: The old factory is being recycled as a theater
  • to use again in the original form or with minimal alteration: The governor recycled some speeches from his early days
  • to cause to pass through a cycle again: to recycle laundry through a washing machine

Upcycling is described by some as reusing a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use. When plastic bottles are recycled, for instance, most often they cannot be turned back into containers associated with anything that can be ingested due to the risk of things seeping into the plastic. As a result, these usually become carpets, or toys, or winter fleeces: things that will eventually also become trash. Recycling has simply prolonged the inevitable by stretching out our waste stream and made the lifecycle costs of the material a bit less.

upcycle diagram

In this model, upcycling becomes dually important. First, the practice reduces the amount of waste that we produce and ultimately goes into the ground for longer than any of us will be around. Secondly, it also reduces the need for new virgin material to be harvested as feedstock for new generations of product. In the case of plastic, this means less oil wells drilled. For metals, less mountains mined. For paper, less trees felled. All around this means less expended energy.

Our treatment of soda cans is closer to a true upcycling model. These aluminum containers can be melted down and made into brand new cans and in the process save over 90% of the energy required to make new ones from scratch. This cycle can continue in perpetuity, reducing energy consumption and effectively removing certain materials from the waste stream. Newsprint finds similar success.

More than once I have seen people broadcasting their “upcycling” habits like making wallets from tires, or lawn chairs from pallets, or tables from wire spools. These are examples of recycling. None of those materials are going back UP the supply chain (the series of processes that an industry uses to create a product or service.) They are just making the chain a bit longer.

Upcycling represents a truly cyclical, balanced process that all industries and companies should be aiming towards. At this point, just having the aim would be another important step. All of our products could be drastically changed if the beginning of their design started with the goal of not having them end up in a landfill. A number of ways could be utilities to train our economy into an inherent practice of reuse. My personal definition of the term ends up as:

Upcycling: A process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value—moving resources back up the supply chain.

It is important to note that I am not saying that recycling is a waste of time or beyond acclaim. Rather, recycling is a first step in reaching a more comprehensive and sustainable solution of waste management that can eventually limit the amount of new, virgin materials that need to be produced or mined from the earth.

Photo Credit: RecyclingPoint.com.au



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by Melissa

It’s so easy to be caught up in the consumerist mindset. I know even for me– coming from a long line of Pilgrims who had to “make do” for over a century — I’ve struggled with really believing the difference between I want and I need. Semantically the difference is obvious. But fully comprehending the difference, and overcoming the little voice in your head screaming otherwise, is more of a challenge.  Take a *recovered* advertising executive’s word for it: the world has too much stuff.

For me, the easiest way to overcome this struggle was by removing myself from all temptations. For us this meant moving from San Francisco – the west coast haven for all things rich, delicious, and beautiful—to another country entirely. This wasn’t the only reason we moved, but our objective was to live more simply, and getting rid of stuff was part and parcel to that.

For you it might be simpler. If you’re tempted by walking past store windows—change your route. If reading magazines fills you with the craving – stop reading them (better for the planet, anyways). If you covet the life of your friends or coworkers—talk to them about something else.  Once you start making small changes, and start seeing how consumerist our society has become, it’s easy to see where you can really make a difference in how you live your life.

I admit—for us the change has been forced upon us, and in many cases we have no choice but to do without. For example, we used to love having a bottle of wine with dinner. Comes with the territory of being a San Francisco yuppie. But here, it’s just not an option. Even if they weren’t ridiculously over priced (and they are,) imported wines are impractical and bad for the planet. And since this isn’t a wine country we do without.

When we got married my mom was torn over what to give us. She’d set her heart on giving me a sewing machine, but was concerned the warranty would be invalidated the second it crossed borders.  So instead, she bought us a great used one on Ebay. Did I care? Not in the least—in fact, I was overjoyed. Why should I support the manufacture of something new when there was something just as useful used and at half price?

And the other day, we ran out to tortillas. With the amount of Mexican food consumed in this house, that’s a big deal. What did I do? I found a recipe online and made them from scratch. They turned out great, and it saved a trip to the store.

The internet is rich with stories of other people making do.  Google Pantry Challenge and learn how to live on what you have on hand. Read about others building homesteads and living off the land. Craigslist is in just about every city now—take advantage of that. Freecycle, dumpster dive, or do it the old fashioned way and shop at the Goodwill.

Embracing the difference between I want and I need is the first step, and it’s a hard one. But once you do, I promise you won’t be alone in your quest to reduce, recycle, and reuse.

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