Upcycling is one of the COOLEST trends out there in my opinion. It combines the creativity we all used to have as kids with a very eco-friendly mindset. But is upcycling sustainable?
Upcycling is very sustainable. It combines all of the benefits of reducing and recycling without some of the downsides. Upcycling decreases production costs and resources and lowers overall waste that would end up in landfills.
Okay, but seriously, HOW is upcycling so sustainable? And how does it fit into the sustainability ecosystem?
Reduce, Reuse, Upcycle…Then Recycle
It’s kind of a bummer that “upcycle” doesn’t start with an “R.” Otherwise, it would fit so nicely in the slogan we all know so well: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
But it’s true; before you decide to recycle something, you should definitely try and upcycle it first. In fact, upcycling, in many ways is much better for the planet than recycling.
Think about it, when you recycle, what happens to that product? Someone’s gotta pick it up and take it to a plant (transportation emissions). Then, that product needs to be broken down to its components before it can be reconstructed into a product.
In other words, your plastic water bottle needs to be deconstructed before it can become a park bench.
And any physics professor will tell you that the law of atrophy is in play here. You end up with fewer usable materials than you started with. So even with recyclable materials, only a certain amount can be used in the new, end product.
But it goes farther.
Once the materials are broken down, there’s still the energy and production factors to make the new product. And finally, there’s the transportation of the new product to wherever it’s going.
Upcycling is different. There’s no transportation cost. You don’t need to break products down to their raw materials to make something new. The production costs are usually minimal, and the resources are few.
And in the end, you end up with a different product–a product that now you don’t need to buy! So in addition to being extraordinarily efficient in its end to end production, upcycling also helps you reduce your consumption.
Now, from what I understand, recycling is still good because it keeps things out of landfills and allows us to cut back our waste. But if you’re looking at the impact on the environment, upcycling takes the cake.
This is why it’s frustrating that upcycling doesn’t start with an “R.” Because it really should be Reduce, Reuse, Upcycle, and then Recycle. The impact that upcycling can have on that system is enormous.
Upcycling and the Circular Economy
So there’s this idea that exists out there that one day, our net waste will be pretty darn near zero. That eventually, everything we own and use will be built out of something else, or that it will be a recycled for of itself.
Recycling is the first step in this economy because of how dynamic it can be. You really can rebuild a bottle to be anything else that’s plastic. But we’ve already discussed how this perspective can be limiting.
In the circular economy, not only will we repurpose things to make new products, but products will be designed to be repurposed. In other words, our products will not only will our products be sustainable because of what they’re made of, but because of how they’re designed.
Watch Lynelle Cameron, CEO of the Autodesk Foundation, once gave an example of this in a Youtube Video which can be found here.
Her example involves the production of a printer, which traditionally involves gluing different grade plastic pieces together. This makes recycling very difficult and inefficient.
If, however, a printer is designed with one grade of plastic, and the pieces snap together. Recycling that printer can be much easier and much more efficient.
Upcycling plays such a crucial role in the circular economy for two main reasons: First, it boosts the idea of a circular economy, and second, it’s the next step in building a circular economy.
If you think about it, if everyone upcycled instead of discarding items, our consumption, in general, would go WAY down.
If your old box springs became a bookshelf, your old sweater became a handbag, and your old shoe boxes became a cubby for your kids toys. We would buy so much less.
Another way of saying it is that, in the circular economy, instead of creating products out of raw materials, we create them out of existing products.
And that’s what upcycling is at its core.
Not Fewer Resources, But Easier, and Cheaper
So we’ve kind of talked the idea of fewer production resources to death. But what does this look like for the average Joe? How does this impact you and me?
Because on the outset, it really just looks harder on the consumer. Sometimes remember to recycle your items can be hard, now I have to be crafty and build everything out of products I already have?
But if you have the tools and a little bit of creativity, it can actually be easier. Because if you build it yourself, you don’t need to go out and find the product.
This is especially true if you’re making something like a bookshelf. You have to find one that fits, pick the right color, and then even once you buy it, you usually need to build it anyway.
With upcycling, you skip straight to the building part. And you’re building something with a purpose. There’s a reason for doing it beyond you just need more storage.
But this is true for many other objects you’d normally buy. Lamps, furniture, kitchen supplies, bags, etc. Once you get a knack for it, it can be easier than going out and buying things anyway. And it’s fun to do.
Upcycling in Business
Another way that this has become sustainable is by making its way into retail. There are now tons of stores that upcycle products.
They’re basically like thrift stores on steroids. Instead of buying something that looks and smells old, you buy something new that was made from old materials.
These businesses are usually small and local. However, there are many of them that sell their products online now. This is a huge step forward in sustainability–especially in the fashion industry.
Textiles are one of the biggest polluting industries out there. And by reusing fabrics, it dramatically cuts back on how much pollution is being added by the industry.
But upcycling has made its way into multiple retail industries, not just fabrics. And marketplaces like Etsy and eBay give these upcyclers a place to sell their products.
Another reason why this is so cool is that almost all of these upcycle companies are small businesses. So by purchasing from them, not only are you having a positive impact on the environment, but you’re helping a small business owner out.
Is it 100% Sustainable? Well…No
As much as I would love to say that upcycling is the end-all-be-all answer to sustainability, it still has a couple of drawbacks that leave us still trying to find an answer to how to make a sustainable, circular economy.
The main drawback to upcycling in its sustainability is that once something is upcycled, it’s hard to upcycle that product again. In other words, you might be able to upcycle your box springs to be a shelf, but upcycling that shelf is harder.
Every upcycle gets increasingly difficult. And although even just one upcycle is better than no upcycle, it does stop us from being able to have a total circular economy.
However, if you upcycled a plastic, and it gets to the point where you can’t upcycle it again, you can recycle it, and that can keep the circulation and sustainability going. This is true for all upcycled materials that are also recyclable.
The other downside to upcycling is that there are some materials that are neither upcyclable or recyclable. And regardless of your efforts, these materials end up as waste.
I think it’s important that in trying to be greener in our approach to waste, that we don’t beat ourselves up over the things we can’t control. And no matter how hard we try, it’s pretty well impossible to be 100% green and sustainable in all that we do.
Just my two cents there.
In the end, regardless of the shortcomings, upcycling can be a great way to ensure that we’re being more sustainable in our choices regarding consumption.
There are still some things to consider in your journey to be more sustainable through upcycling. Some of these questions might help you out:
What kind of tools do I need for upcycling? Having a good set of tools makes upcycling so much easier. It helps to have some good quality saws, screws, glue and paint. Most projects will require at least one of these items. So make sure you have what you need for the projects you’re working on.
Where do I get upcycling materials? Even the best upcyclers need materials to supplement their projects. Or maybe you want to upcycle something, but you’re not getting rid of anything. Locating your local thrift stores, salvage yards, and scrap yards is a good idea to do if you’re going to dive into upcycling.