Skip to main content

In the Loop

Down with upcycling?

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

Marine debris becomes sneakers and sunglasses, cigarette butts are turned into shipping pallets and plastic water bottles are converted into carpet and clothing. Just about every day I hear a new story about an "upcycled" product — one that transforms waste materials into a new product of higher value — that offers companies a compelling marketing narrative and, just maybe, a path into the circular economy.

But as I began to unpack this growing trend, it became clear that definitions and practices vary drastically when it comes to upcycling, and creating circularity might not be so straightforward after all.

The term was popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book "Cradle to Cradle," and aims to make use of existing materials rather than extracting new ones, while retaining their high quality in a closed-loop industrial cycle.

Sounds a lot like a key principle of circularity, right?

While the practice long has been lauded by crafty DIY-ers and Pinterest enthusiasts, companies are beginning to upcycle products as well: Sportswear company Adidas is working to transform "threat into thread," turning marine debris into material for shoes. Innovative recycling company TerraCycle is making park benches out of dirty diapers (seriously). A couple of upcycling headlines were in the news last week:

  • Delta Airlines announced the "largest single company textile diversion programs in U.S. history," a project to upcycle 350,000 pounds of retired uniforms into bags and passport covers with the help of Portland-based manufacturer Looptworks.

  • Loop Industries announced a partnership with cosmetics company L’Oréal Group to convert waste PET plastic and polyester fiber into into Loop PET "to be endlessly upcycled."

From recycling plastic to physically extending the life of textiles, companies are applying the term upcycling to a broad range of products and practices, and their impact on closing the loop varies widely, too. So, when it comes to understanding upcycling in the context of circularity, it’s important to look at the story beyond the headline.

A common litmus test for the circular economy is answering the question "What happens next?" Is a newly upcycled product simply delaying something’s disposition in a landfill by one use cycle, or is the company behind it thinking about multiple use cycles for the product or its constituent materials?

And what about material health? Dangerous levels of lead, bromine and other hazardous materials recently were found in children's toys, food storage containers, cooking tools and other consumer goods made from the upcycled black plastic in e-waste — computers, printers and the like. That certainly was not what the plastic originally was designed for. "If you don’t create a product that’s healthy, you cannot upcycle it into another product that is healthy," warned We Mean Business CEO Nigel Topping.

In a truly circular economy, everything will cycle continuously and indefinitely. Upcycling is not inherently circular because it merely delays a material’s path to the landfill. It will take a more holistic, strategic effort by companies to close the loop.

Emerging Leaders: We are taking applications for our VERGE 18 Emerging Leaders Scholarship program, sponsored by United Airlines. We will reward 10 up-and-coming professionals from underrepresented backgrounds, or who have faced adversity in their path to achieving their career goals, with an all-expenses-paid trip to VERGE 18, including airfare and accommodations. Deadline is Aug. 31.

More on this topic