Something old, something new: the rising trends of upcycling and recycling

Something old, something new: the rising trends of upcycling and recycling

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Recycled cans, most common examples of waste hierarchy (U.S. Archives, Public Domain)
— Lito Apostolakou

In a world that generates some four billion tons of unwanted stuff each year, recycling is a necessity and waste has become big business worth $450 billion in 2010. The worst offenders in waste generation are industrialized countries with the U.S. holding the reins as the top waste producer. Despite growing environmental awareness only one billion tons of waste is recycled, the rest left in landfills or incinerated.

Recycling involves the processing of waste materials into new products. But what about reducing consumption of raw materials, reusing discarded products and creating something beautiful in the process? Something old, something new: welcome to the world of upcycling!

What is Upcycling?

German environmentalist Gunter Pauli has been credited with the introduction of the concept of upcycling in 1996. Upcycling is the re-use and repurpose of old or discarded materials and the creation of new useable products, sometimes of a better aesthetic value. Upcycling does not involve breaking down waste to their components but putting ready-made albeit discarded products into new uses.

It is a practice that is commonly used in the developing world and is becoming a trend in the affluent western societies too. As a matter of fact “freecycling” has become vastly popular in the West, sites have popped up all over offering goods for free, from one person to another person who may be able to make use of it. Truly — one man’s trash is another person’s treasure.

The number of products tagged “upcycled” on Etsy, the world’s largest online marketplace for handmade products, rose from 8,000 in 2010 to 30,000 in 2011 and today stands at 180,000.

Upmarket upcycling and the trend towards fashionable environmentalism

Repurposing old materials may be a matter of necessity in developing countries but in the western world upcycling has gone upmarket: young entrepreneurs are transforming cheap and second-hand materials into luxury goods (with prices to match). Furniture, jewellery, clothing, home décor and housewares made from discarded goods — from old newspapers to bathtubs and from industrial hardware to old tyres — are sold at premium prices by innovative makers and entrepreneurs.

Upcycled mechanical clock turned photo display, cardholder (L. Apostolakou)

Upcyclers are brandishing their environmental credentials of their products and boasting about their conservation of resources. The variety of upcycled goods is dizzying: jewellery made from metal washers, bottle caps and Nespresso capsules, pet beds made of vintage suitcases, sofas made of old bathtubs, and belts made of bicycle tyres — upcycling has been hailed as instrumental in the new wave of entrepreneurial innovation. This is not the thrift re-use of old but the rise of the appeal of the green handmade non-mass-produced product.

DIY and mass upcycling, do it yourselfers discover the value of “value added”

Antonia Edwards, creator of the online magazine The Upcyclist, is very much focusing on the creative side of upcycling, and reports on “restoring, reclaiming, reviving, remaking, repurposing, reusing and re-loving”.

Proponents of upcycling are about single initiatives focusing on making people to notice “the history in each object…and to move away from shiny and mass produced consumables.” Most of the makers trading on Etsy have small workshops or even work from home.

For all its DIY and unique-green-object appeal, upcycling is also becoming big business.

Companies like TerraCycle are turning waste materials to actual products with a large-scale infrastructure to boot. Companies like this also employ scientists who put their thinking caps on to figure out how to turn garbage into cool objects. A variety of businesses too are realizing that instead of paying for the disposal of their waste they can use it to create something of value out of it. The focus is on products which are cool, innovative, stylish, “and at the end of it they happen to be upcycled. That’s the way it should work,” points out Hamlin of Loopworks, another company inspired by sustainable manufacturing methods.

Upcycling spurs new creative and business opportunities. Will upcycling become big business? Many of the upcycled products currently on the market are made by small-scale independent makers and cannot compete with their mass-produced counterparts in terms of price. Should upcycling become mass produced and the upcycled goods more affordable, will upcycled products lose part of their appeal as handmade, cool, unique objects of desire? Time will tel

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