What do we mean by upcycling? And is it really a solution to the world's environmental challenges? By Marc Violo

Upcycling was heralded as a potential environmental miracle in 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle: The Way We Make Things. 

This book brought upcycling into the public vernacular, defined as a method to reduce waste through the transformation of an unused product into a product with a fresh use, without the product being broken or melted down.

Examples of upcycling

For example, Freitag makes bags out of old truck tarpaulin (pictured below). What makes this true upcycling is the tarpaulin’s material integrity being maintained with a skilled hand transforming its value from unwanted tarpaulin to desired bag.

Being used to cover something other than a truck would be reuse, or if it was broken down and reprocessed in to a carpet tile, this would be recycling. 

Fast-forward to 2010, and 8,000 products were categorised as upcycling on alternative shopping platform Etsy, and picture site Pinterest. Three years later, 260,000 products had that label. Has there been an upcycling boom, or is something else going on?  

Scouring online shops, it's sad to see that upcycling has diverged from its original goal: to reduce the demand for natural resources. It's important therefore that we reclaim the term for its original purpose. 

Upcycling today is being used to describe all manner of repurposing of goods

Numerous examples online of what's described as upcycled end up using more natural resources, by combining old items with new materials to create something which isn’t essential - for example, jewellery made from CDstoilet paper tubes turned into flimsy napkin holders or clothing made out of can caps. 

If anything, these upcycles turn potentially recyclable waste into objects that are harder to recycle and with a debatable lifespan. 

In a world in which we globally consume 60% more of the Earth’s resources each year than the planet can replenish, it's important we question the need for each product created. So are we still putting purpose at the heart of upcycling? 

Why upcycling is important

Upcycling is still a promising solution to what we feel is the crux of the world’s environmental challenges  providing products contributing to a good quality of life for all without destroying habitats, fuelling climate change, and polluting our air and water 

In this context, could we strategically leverage upcycling to revamp close to 50 million metric tons of electronic waste into new valuable items? 

The Rainforest Connection for example, upcycles discarded phones into acoustic monitoring systems to prevent illegal logging and poaching in rainforests. 

Likewise, looking at our global plastic pollution problem, can we think of scalable upcycling ideas which will turn an environmental challenge into products everyone needsAdidas launched a running shoe from upcycled ocean plastic

Could upcycling address food waste? That’s what Barnana has set off to dobecoming a multi-billion dollar company by turning bananas deemed too imperfect to sell to consumers into tasty dried snacks. 

These are simple examples of industrial symbiosis, when a company’s waste becomes another’s raw materials. Companies like TerraCycle have become experts in turning waste into business opportunities, which in turn enables a more circular economy. 

In  the  circular economy products and services are viewed holistically, mimicking the biological lifecycle, where every end is a new beginning and where everything has a purpose. 

Freitag bags, produced at its Zurich Factory above, are the thriving  embodiment of a circular production cycle, creating 300,000 products annually from 300 tonnes of  non-modified tarpaulin and using 100% biodegradable fabric when necessary

The extra resources needed to produce the bags are sourced within a 2,500km radius from the factory as opposed to the average 50,000km for a normal pair of jeans. The water needed for production comes from the rain collected on their factory’s roof. 

Understanding upcycling in your business

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been working with dozens of global businesses like Unilever, H&M and Renault to help them shift their business models to embrace the repair-reuse-recycle circular economy model. 

For these businesses, we at Global Action Plan propose a simple decision flowchart to ensure that upcycling delivers the environmental benefits it could create: 

  1. Is this new product essential (in a world where we consume 60% more than the earth can provide)? 

    No – Then creating it is not upcycling, no matter how clever the repurposing of the product. 
    Yes – Proceed, as the product has purpose  

  2. Is the upcycling process less environmentally damaging than making the product from scratch?

    No – This upcycling is not smart. Look for alternative uses for the unwanted product you propose to upcycle, and alternative sources of materials for the product you aim to make. 
    Yes – Congratulations, you’ve found a good upcycle! 

Upcycling can be one of the key components of the circular economy and commonsense miracle to today’s linear take-make-dispose resource use.

Consumers and businesses alike will make this miracle a reality if they keep product purpose at the heart of upcycling.  

Marc Violo is Innovation & Growth Lead at Global Action Plan

Pictures: Kevin Jarrett (main); Alessio Lin (middle); Samuel Zeller