Whether you’ve spent years fighting the good fight for a greener future or are just now looking at an eco-friendly lifestyle, you might be interested but confused on the relatively new term upcycling. It sounds like a new version of recycling, but what exactly does it mean? What makes upcycling different from recycling, and why is it all the rage among environmentally minded communities?
Upcycling is what it’s called when you take something discarded, a scrap item, an old used item, or something else headed to the landfill and remake it into a brand new product. The stereotypical image of a hip bar in Williamsburg Brooklyn is full of this idea: old doors as tables, barrels converted into chairs, mason jars as ceiling lights, and so on. And of course, while the term is relatively new, the idea of upcycling has been around for forever. In fact, there's a good chance your grandmother or great-grandmother made flour-sack dresses during the great depression, which is a prime (but sadly desperate) example of upcycling.
So what makes this different than recycling? Traditional recycling involves breaking down an item to its base components, whereas upcycling refashions what’s already there into an entirely new item. While some materials such as aluminum can be melted down and recycled near indefinitely, most materials lose quality when they are recycled. Plastic food containers cannot be remade into new food containers. That plastic has to become a cheaper product such as building insulation, while new virgin plastic has to be made to make more plastic food containers. This loss of value is why traditional recycling can be more accurately described as downcycling. Upcycling on the other hand does not involve a loss of value. Instead, upcycling an item increases its value. Instead of a slowly degrading value over time, upcycling refashions the material into a better product.
Obviously, upcycling is a great way to reduce waste. And it’s also much less greenhouse gas intensive than recycling, as upcycling just takes grit and creativity instead of all the energy needed to break down an item into its components. But upcycling has much bigger and better eventual implications.
The term Upcycling was popularized by chemist William McDonough and architect Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which outlines the idea of a circular economy. Our current society can be thought of as a linear economy. A product gets made, gets used, then get thrown out. As helpful as recycling is, what it does is delay the “gets used” part into worse and worse products until it eventually gets worn out completely and thrown away. But upcycling moves the material up the value chain. It makes the endpoint of one product’s life the starting point of another. The eventual goal, envisioned by McDonough and Braungart, is to build towards a circular economy, where everything that would be thrown out instead becomes the raw material for another product, and nothing would need to be introduced into the system or thrown away.
When you think of it, the way we live is somewhat absurd. We use a product, sometimes for as little as a few minutes when talking about disposable plastics, put it in a “go-away” container, then someone takes it to a gigantic pit in the middle on nowhere and buries it. That is if it doesn’t end up in the ocean. How is that any way to build a society? Most everything in the natural world works in cycles, it's bizarre that we can't do that too. Upcycling is the first step in this. Right now, upcycling is mostly being done with smaller brands that can work with the smaller scale and limited-run nature of upcycling, but the eventual goal is to build a completely circular economy, where nothing goes to waste. The future of humanity is in that circular economy, and we believe that there’s no better time than now to start making this future a reality.