The Art of Upcycling

Reiner Pilz first used the term ‘upcycle’ in 1994. He neatly pointed out that there are two types of recycling – upcycling and downcycling. Most of recycling is confined to downcycling. This is when unwanted items are melted or crushed down or otherwise treated to make a resource that is of less value. Recycling aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastic bags to extract raw materials for other industrial processes are examples of downcycling.

♻ In contrast upcycling (or repurposing) is about taking a discarded item and changing it into an item which has greater value than the original item. Upcycling requires more imagination than downcycling and has been practiced in developing countries long before Reiner Pilz coined the term. I remember my first trip to Bangkok in 1990 marveling at the mini sculptures of tuk tuks made from aluminum cans. Poor people have always had a way of improvising solutions to problems of shortage with the materials at hand. Another example from my journeys of upcycling is from Pakistan. There they use old truck and car tires to make sandals that are strong and comfortable.

♻ It is only recently that the developed world has caught onto the potential of upcycling both for producing cheap goods and for being environmentally friendly. The great thing about upcycling is that it often avoids the carbon intensive machinery and processes involved in downcycling. Thus, upcycling is a good way to reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change. Also using plastics and other non-biodegradable materials for upcycling helps to limit air and water pollution. Furthermore, upcycling reduces the consumption of new materials.

♻ The big challenge to big companies is that upcycling is often labor intensive and involves a different mind-set to many standard business models. It is not about collecting tons of recycled waste, putting it through an industrial process and coming out with hundreds of thousands of identical units that can be packaged, marketed and sold in the same manner as any other consumer product. This is true of recycled paper but not of upcycled goods.

Of course upcycled goods can be standardized to certain specifications but because the raw materials are being manipulated not boiled down, crushed or melted the finished product often retains some of the original characteristics of the material it was made from. Thus, although the laptop cases on Amazon made from wet suits look fairly regular they are not going to be identical because wetsuits have different parts, stitching and colors.

It is for this reason that art is one of the most successful areas for upcycling. Upcycling in art can be used to make a statement or it can be used to make unusual pieces of craft and jewelry.

Indeed a lot of jewelry business is based on upcycling because they often take precious stones and gems salvaged from other ornamental items and make pieces with more value by adding craftsmanship.

👍 As natural resources become scarcer and as we find it harder to deal with the growing mountains of unwanted, non-biodegradable petroleum based products we will be forced to use our imaginations more and more to think of alternative uses for our consumer waste and here is where upcycling becomes important.