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How to outsmart waste

Upcycling is an art. Can broken table legs become shelves? Can plastic water bottles become gardening tools?

This is an excerpt from Outsmart Waste: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It , with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

The art of upcycling

The key difference between upcycling and reusing waste is that with upcycling the original intention of the object changes. For example, if a painter uses a painted canvas for a new painting, he is reusing the canvas. But if instead that same painter takes the canvas apart, uses the wood to make a frame and uses the fabric to make a purse — that’s upcycling.

Upcycling is not a new idea

The idea of upcycling isn’t all that new. People have been upcycling for thousands of years. In fact, before the Industrial Revolution (and before processes typically needed for recycling became readily available), reuse and upcycling were common practices. There were no landfills or incinerators to speak of, and the idea of “disposable goods” simply didn’t exist in the way it does today. If your pants wore out, the remaining material could be used as cleaning rags or to make another piece of clothing. If a leg broke off your kitchen table, the wood that originally made the table could be used to make a shelf.

The concept of waste is a luxury, and this is perhaps why upcycling is more commonplace in poor countries than in rich ones. If you don’t have the resources to buy new objects, you will fulfill your needs by looking at what is available and using that — getting quite creative in the process.

Leave your assumptions at the door

The best way to wrap your head around upcycling is to stop looking at objects as waste. Take a tip from nature and look at your “waste” as a valuable material — an output whose initial intention doesn’t need to determine its current purpose. Look at what that object is but try to ignore what it was. In fact, try to pretend that you don’t even know what it was made for in the first place.

For example, from the point of view of upcycling, a chip bag is not food packaging; it’s a flexible plastic film. It is a waterproof, colorful, thin and easy-to-tear material with very high tensile strength. The more obvious applications for such a material are weaving and sewing, but the possibilities are endless.

Take another example: a bicycle chain. If you didn’t know it was made as a key component of a bicycle, you would be freed to see it without that lens — as a heavy-duty metal chain that connects to itself and can easily be made into smaller sections. Jewelry, pots, clocks and a host of other upcycled objects only begin to scratch the surface of the once-a-bicycle-chain’s uses.

Or how about a vinyl record? If you didn’t know that these objects were made to play music (which may be the case with many younger people), you’d just see a black plastic disc about the size of a Frisbee. If you did some experimenting, you’d find that it can be molded after applying a little heat with a hair dryer. What once might have showered bedrooms and dance clubs with music can now be easily formed into a bowl, a plate, or a clock. This list goes on and on and is really limited only by our imagination.

The business of upcycling

People have been upcycling for as long as new objects have broken or, recently, gone out of fashion, but the field is really just picking up from a commercial perspective. In the past decade, socially conscious organizations have made upcycling their business. This first began with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in poorer countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.

Beginning in September 2004, the People’s Recovery, Empowerment, Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation, a charitable organization that was founded in the Philippines in 1974, began producing, selling and shipping items made from upcycled juice pouches — a waste stream just as common in the Philippines as in the United States.

PREDA trains people to collect used juice pouches (including many students, helping their schools earn money in the process), pays them for their efforts and teaches them about the environment. After the collected pouches are cleaned and sanitized, PREDA makes them available to women who produce handcrafted items. Since 2004 PREDA has sold thousands of upcycled products worldwide.

Mitz, named for a Nahuati word meaning “for you,” was founded in 2003 (a year before PREDA) by Judith Achar. She started Mitz to fund Casa de Niños de Palo Solo, a Montessori school in Mexico that has provided community service for low-income students since 1979.

Searching for ways to develop the community and have its members share in the work, Judith brought together a group of mothers to manufacture everyday articles from materials thrown out by local schools and business. The primary products are handwoven bags made from various food-packaging wrappers.

Upcycling as an industry is not confined to places such as Mexico and the Philippines; people in more-developed regions of the world are also getting into the business. In 1993 graphic designer brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag were on the lookout for a messenger bag. Inspired by the colored truck tarps that they saw on the highways in Switzerland, they started FREITAG, a highly successful company that now makes various upcycled bags available all around the world.

But the list doesn’t stop with truck tarps and messenger bags. Chaba Décor upcycles wood from demolished boats and buildings to make picture frames and other items for home decor. Ecoist, similar in function to Mitz, weaves candy wrappers into fashionable bags. Global Exchange upcycles old magazines into bowls, flip-flops into doormats, soda cans into wallets and much more.

The Greenshop upcycles print blankets, billboards and inner tubes to make pet collars, laptop covers and notebook folders. New York-based in2green creates cotton apparel, blankets and totes using yarn made from T-shirt clippings. Transglass makes beautiful vases and other glass pieces from old wine bottles.

Whit McLeod repurposes oak wine casks and barrels to make unique furniture. Trash Amps upcycles soda cans and Chinese-takeout boxes into portable speakers for MP3 players and guitar amps. Upcycle Products repurposes large food barrels into rain barrels and composters. And my company, TerraCycle, a global leader in upcycling, makes everything from cookie-wrapper kites to wine barrel composters.

The list of upcycled products is at least as long as the list of waste product materials that can be used in their construction (and the companies doing it). Fortunately, you don’t have to be a company or an NGO to leverage the benefits of upcycling yourself.

Leveraging upcycling as an individual

It takes something of a do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality to successfully upcycle at home. Add that to your newfound perspective on waste and, voilà, you are ready to outsmart waste at home by upcycling. Upcycling at home is even more environmentally friendly than having an upcycling company do it because you avoid the environmental impacts that come with transporting waste to the upcycling company and then transporting the upcycled product back to you.

The key to successful at-home upcycling is to first separate out your garbage. Try to keep the organics and the inorganics separate. Even if you don’t compost, consider having one garbage can for organic waste and one for inorganics. This simple act of separating also will make it easier in the event that you do eventually start composting.

Once you’ve started to separate your garbage, consider cleaning it out before putting it into your garbage can, only now your “garbage can” isn’t really a garbage can anymore — it’s a “raw material storage unit.” With this in mind, try to organize it as you would raw materials in a workshop. After you’ve removed the yogurt from the yogurt cups and the chocolate from the candy wrappers, try to organize the waste into three basic categories.

Flexible packaging: Everything from chip bags to candy wrappers to the notorious plastic shopping bag — if you can crumple it, it fits in the flexible-packaging category. If you keep the material types together (chip bags with chip bags and plastic bags with plastic bags), you can actually fuse them together by putting them between pieces of waxed paper and running a warm iron over them. The resulting material then can be sewn, without tearing, into totes, wallets, lunch boxes and just about anything you can imagine.

Rigid packaging: Yogurt tubs and plastic bottles are great examples of rigid packaging. Although rigid objects cannot be sewn, they are great building blocks both literally and figuratively. If you punch a drainage hole in the bottom, yogurt cups and margarine tubs can be used to start seedlings or grow full-sized plants. Plastic bottles can be cut in half and made into candleholders or gardening tools and also can make great building blocks for sheds, fences and even homes if filled with sand or something similar.

Everything else: Because flexible and rigid packaging constitutes most home waste, whatever doesn’t fit in either category can go together. Because the range of waste types you can encounter here is enormous, “everything else” can be a little more challenging. But don’t be alarmed — almost everything has upcycling potential. Wine corks can be made into corkboards, bottle caps into art and jewelry, pens into chandeliers, and on and on. If you are having any trouble thinking of what to create with a particular waste item, go to your favorite search engine, type in the name of the waste stream followed by the word "upcycled," and you’ll likely find a whole slew of ideas.

Categories for home waste upcycling

— Organics

— Inorganic flexible packaging

— Inorganic rigid packaging

— Everything else

With proper separation, a little cleaning and a DIY spirit, you effectively can upcycle most of your garbage into useful items — and are well on your way to eliminating the idea of waste in your home.

Leveraging upcycling at work

Upcycling isn’t limited to your home and is a sustainable practice that also can be brought to the workplace. TerraCycle, for example, operates offices in 24 countries, and all of our offices are designed and furnished with entirely upcycled materials. The benefit of outfitting workspaces with upcycled material (beyond having our U.S. headquarters being called one of the “coolest offices in the world” by the New York Times) is that it costs much less than traditional interior design options. When you use waste material, your raw material costs are very low, many times free and sometimes even negative.

Beyond using waste to design an office, many companies are in the business of making stuff. Factories, for instance, almost always generate pre-consumer waste (or “factory waste”) in the process of production. 

Pre-consumer waste is generated not just by the factory at the end of the supply chain but by all of the factories along the entire supply chain and typically represents 3 to 10 percent of annual production.

The great thing about pre-consumer waste is that it is typically clean and best of all it’s sorted — it’s truckloads of clean labels or clean bottles if you are in the shampoo business, and it’s truckloads of trimmings and unused fabrics if you are in the clothing business. Whatever it is, it is prime raw material for upcycling. Consider upcycling the waste your workplace produces, or ask a company that upcycles to help you out.

Don’t limit your upcycling ambition to just your home. Outsmarting waste has no boundaries and can be applied individually and organizationally. While there are many ways to upcycle, and a huge number of items can be upcycled, there are a few limitations.

The limits of upcycling

Upcycling is more of an art than a science and, unfortunately, it does have its limits. First, not everyone is a do-it-yourselfer who is willing to separate and clean waste for upcycling purposes. Not only is upcycling limited by the number of people who are willing to do it but the current market size (as demonstrated by the companies that are in the upcycling business) is very small — perhaps because it’s a relatively new business concept or perhaps because the market actually is quite small.

Another limit to upcycling is that it’s a relatively low-volume solution compared with the total volume of waste out there. Even if every backpack, pencil case and tote bag in the world were made out of upcycled juice pouches, that would still represent only about 10 percent of all the juice pouches produced, not to mention that an upcycled backpack covered with logos doesn’t appeal to everyone.

Finally, not everything actually can be upcycled. Used chewing gum, diapers and cigarettes cannot technically be upcycled in the same way an old barrel or a plastic bag can.

Regardless of the limits, if you believe in the idea of outsmarting waste by upcycling, you can support it as a practice by buying upcycled goods. This is where that almighty vote you cast by buying stuff comes into play.

Almost any product you can imagine has an upcycled counterpart; it just may take a little time to find it.

For the big-volume solution to garbage, especially the garbage that can’t be reused or upcycled, we move down the hierarchy of waste — to recycling.  

(The limits of upcycling)

— Not everyone is willing to separate and clean waste.

— It is a low-volume solution compared with the total volume of waste.

— Not everything can be upcycled.

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