Can upcycling change the industry?


Ever since the book Cradle to Cradle was published, ten years ago, the concept of upcycling has developed into an increasingly-prevalent trend. It could be now on the verge of upscaling, and transforming the very way our industry provides the goods we need.


“Upcycling” is a word that has lately been appearing more and more in the media. It basically means giving a second life to reclaimed materials, with added value. Instead of doing what “regular” recycling does – degrading materials to reuse them –, upcycling makes the most of them to create objects, decorative items, clothes, etc. that make the original products worth more than they did to start with. This process might not seem that innovative: before the age of technological progress and mass production, it was very common to make new things from old. But it gained a fresh lease of life when the question of how our activities impact the environment came urgently to the fore. In 2002, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in which they developed the idea that manufacturers were producing according to a “cradle-to-grave” pattern that completely ignored the question of waste and its treatment. They also stated that recycling was not enough to reverse both the environmental and economic balance – because, yes, waste is costly. The authors thus

make the case that an industrial system that ‘takes, makes and wastes’ can become a creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social and economic value.

So for the last ten years the word “upcycling” has been proliferating in websites and blogs dedicated to ecology and environmental concerns, and a new economy has been developing around this notion. A typical example of this upcycling trend is the popular website Etsy, where people sell and buy homemade products increasingly produced using reclaimed materials. Small companies selling this “new” type of product blossom every day throughout the developed world. Recently, singer and surfer Jack Johnson even organised an upcycling contest with t-shirts. But is all this sufficient proof that upcycling could profoundly transform our industry?

From trend to industrial approach

Even if some upcycling companies (like the ten-year-old TerraCycle, which aims to eliminate the very idea of waste) are quite big, most initiatives today are still confined to small-scale, hand-made projects. And while the process attracts a great deal of attention, it does not influence the industry in the same proportion, because there are still a few barriers to tear down. The first and most significant is that of perception: consumer awareness of the issue is still relatively low. Raising it means providing more knowledge on the production chain, the origin of materials, the treatment of waste, etc. It means a considerable effort in terms of education, so that making the most of a material becomes an essential requirement for consumers. Then there is the behaviour of the manufacturers themselves: they need to adopt this educational approach as well, and integrate the aspect of reclaimed materials into their processes.

There is now an upsurge of new companies that aim to achieve “closed loop manufacturing” and make a business of upcycling,

and more and more “traditional” firms are now resorting to these new players to manage their surplus, for instance. If the majority of these companies realised how much upcycling offered them in economic and business terms, on top of the positive environmental impact, it would be easier to impose it as a habit, in the same way as recycling.  It is true that various constraints are associated with the very concept of upcycling: the uncertain availability of the material, the obligation to have a precise plan for the material before it is collected, storage issues, etc. But if these barriers were removed and these constraints intelligently integrated into manufacturers’ processes, nothing would prevent the upcycling trend from turning into a profitable, sustainable industrial approach. To quote the authors of Cradle to Cradle, “the re-invention of human industry is not only within our grasp, it is our best hope for a future of sustaining prosperity.”

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