You may have heard of the term Upcycling before but are unsure of its full meaning. Upcycling refers to transforming old items into new materials or products in a creative way to better the environment. In the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the goal of upcycling is to prevent useful materials from being landfilled by repurposing them for another use. Giving them a second life! There are several advantages to repurposing old items. As we know each product has a life cycle from its design and manufacturing to its use and disposal. Consider for a moment, the amount of energy used, and pollution produced in the creation of a new product out of raw materials. Upcycling looks to expand the life cycle of an item without duplicating the energy use and pollution produced from its initial creation.
A good example, and one I am personally familiar with, would be wood doors and windows. First, the wood is cut and transported to a mill by truck, both of which create considerable CO2 release, while also depleting the forest and animal habitat. Next, the wood must be milled and cut to various sizes, then transported again to a manufacturing facility. Further time and resources are spent designing, milling, cutting, assembling, and finishing the product for eventual sale. You also have other materials like glass, rubber, metal etc. all of which have their own embodied energy to produce. Therefore, to simply throw such items into the trash, thereby filling up space in landfills, is an absolute waste of resources!
When you take an old item, most often destined for landfill, and make it into something new you can achieve more than you may consider. First, as mentioned above, you’re saving that item from taking up space in a landfill, which has limited space and ongoing costs to maintain. Landfills present many environmental concerns such as chemical leaching into nearby lakes and rivers where they enter the food stream and eventually our bodies. Landfills also tend to be filled mostly with organic materials, which create considerable CO2 and Methane during the rotting and decomposition process, which contributes to climate change.
Many objects can be altered for another purpose to extend their life cycles; everything from household goods, such as plastic containers and old clothing, to construction materials, such as glass, wood and appliances. I often use old plastic containers as mini greenhouses for seedlings in my garden. Likewise, old furniture tends to work well for fun crafts and projects in the garden. An old dresser can be transformed into a multi -tiered planter for example. One object that can be readily found throughout most areas, wooden pallets, can be repurposed into over a thousand projects.
The point is that to simply toss an object aside after its initial use, is both poor planning and down right wasteful. In a day in age when resources are depleting and landfills are already being mined for resources in third world countries, one has to wonder how long before we in North America start to mine our landfills for resources? This is where upcycling has the potential to considerably reduce waste going to those landfills. Unfortunately, it can be a tough sell with the single use mentality so pervasive in our society. There are other barriers to overcome as well when upcycling materials. For instance, when you are looking to upcycle construction materials it is important to note that most building codes have regulations.
Anyone involved in any industry will often agree the waste in their industry is overwhelming. While upcycling won’t solve the waste issue on its own, it can help to significantly reduce waste going to landfills, which in turn reduces costs by reducing our dependence on landfills. Furthermore, by reusing and repurposing old items, as opposed to landfilling them, we can save the embodied energy and CO2 within those products from decomposition, which reduces pollution and climate change. Upcycling also reduces the need to create new items which in turn reduces both energy use and pollution, and helps us get one step closer towards an economy that is circular, as opposed to ‘single use’.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. 2002.