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Why upcycling is both a science and an art

Using recycled materials once made for a pretty good sustainability story. Today, though, recycling is blase, and the bar is set higher: Companies need to upcycle materials, shifting their story from "less bad" to "more good." But as companies jump on the bandwagon and strive to hit the market with new upcycled products, we need to figure out exactly what that phrase means, because frankly, I'm not sure anyone really knows.

If we vaguely define upcycling to mean that a material has been made more sustainable through a recycling process, it leads us to think that some scientific measure of sustainability could and should be used. It's a wonderful notion to believe that our pursuits toward sustainability are grounded in science. When you have entire industries familiarizing themselves with terms such as "metric tons of CO2 equivalents" and "product to package ratio," it even suggests that sustainability falls squarely in the realm of quantitative measurements. It gives us hope that industry can manage what it can measure.

But if sustainability is about meeting the needs of a growing society while incurring a limited amount of negative environmental impacts, then sustainability is probably only about half-scientific — because meeting the needs of society is also an art.

Definitions of upcycling

To most companies, upcycling is about enhancing the value of materials through recycling and transforming something cheap into something valuable. Take the recycling of plastic packaging waste into playground pieces, speed bumps or lumber. Companies turn a profit on these operations because they realize the opportunity for upcycling the value of materials that others have devalued. This concept falls clearly into economics, the first realm of sustainability.  

Meanwhile, authors Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart argue that upcycling should be the practice of making materials more environmentally benign through recycling. This way of thinking tells us that upcycling is primarily about reducing environmental impacts. Take a hazardous chemical out of a waste material during the recycling process, and it becometh upcycled. Or if a material is transformed via recycling into one that cannot be recycled again, it is now downcycled. This is a little easier to measure. Maybe even scientific. 

But to most consumers, an upcycled product is something made with materials less useful in their previous life. Earrings or bracelets made from old newspapers? Upcycled. The newspaper served a relatively small purpose compared to the years of enjoyment one could get out of an artistic piece of jewelry. To consumers, this measure of wellbeing determines the social worth of a product. Add social value, and you're upcycling.

This concept of a product's contribution to the wellbeing of society is central to sustainability, yet it tends to be the most poorly understood. It's the most challenging for science-minded folks to understand or articulate. Figuring out what makes someone happy is hardly a scientific endeavor.

The importance of an inclusive approach

That's sustainability in a nutshell: an ambiguous mix of measurable achievements and subjective valuations that tells us if the world has been made a better place. Ultimately, upcycling, and sustainability as a whole, should be about creating a more optimized set of attributes over each of the economic, environmental and social realms. It's not fair to pick one pillar of sustainability and claim progress without taking into account the other two.  

This inclusive approach tells us if we're doing a better job of meeting the needs of society while limiting our environmental impacts. It's true that companies do stand to benefit from upcycling their way to more sustainable products. But it will be much more meaningful when we focus on progress across all pillars of sustainability — and maybe even agree on what exactly upcycling is.

Upcycle photo by Ed Samuel via Shutterstock

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