What is Upcycling: Pros, Cons, and Examples

What is Upcycling: Pros, Cons, and Examples

Upcycling is a form of recycling that involves transforming unwanted or useless products, waste products, and byproducts into high-value and functional repurposed and upcycled products. The opposite of this process is downcycling, which involves converting discarded products into new materials, with lesser quality and reduced functionality.

The first known use of the term appeared in a 1994 printed article published by design-oriented organization Salvo and written by Thornton Kay. The article quoted Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH & Co, a German automation technology company, who compared upcycling with downsizing, specifically describing the former as recycling old products to give it more value.

Belgian entrepreneur and economist Gunter Paul talked about upcycling in his 1998 book  “Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions.” The concept was incorporated in the 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” authored by William McDonough, an American architect and designer, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist.

Examples and Applications of Upcycling

The most common application of upcycling can be found in the realm of arts and design. In the United States, the number of contents about upcycled products posted on social networking sites such as Pinterest and Instagram, as well as electronic commerce platforms such as Etsy, has increased from about 7,900 in 2010 to more than 250,000 in 2013 according to an article by Rebecca Rodenberg of the Faribault Daily News.

Several contemporary artists have exhibited artworks made by repurposing discarded products. These include Australia-based American artist Jeff Wassmann and Dutch tape artist Max Zorn. Of course, it is worth mentioning that the idea of reusing unwanted items in artworks have existed even during the early 1900s and perhaps, even earlier. However, has upcycled art has gained further prominence alongside growing environmental awareness.

Outside arts and design, upcycling has other industrial and commercial applications. There is a dedicated field of research aimed at converting discarded plastics into usable materials to include paramagnetic, conductors, and carbon nanomaterials, among others. The goal of these studies is to ascribe an economic value to upcycled products by developing processes that can efficiently bring materials from the waste stream back to the mainstream.

Consumer electronic companies have also rolled out buyback programs intended to refurbish or remanufacture second-hand items. Within the clothing and apparel industry, several manufacturers are now using industrial textile waste and old clothing items, as well as discarded plastics as raw materials or production inputs. Food wastes and agricultural byproducts have been used to make biofuels and organic composts. These organizations are essentially integrating upcycling in their value chain and within their specific product development efforts.

Below are some specific examples:

• BioTork, a biotechnology company headquartered in Florida, entered an agreement with the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an initiative aimed at converting unmarketable papayas into omega-rich fish feed.

• Multinational consumer electronics company Samsung Electronics has expanded its Galaxy Upcycling Program intending to repurpose old smartphones and other devices into smart home devices and other IoT gadgets.

• Adidas has partnered with Parley for the Oceans since 2015 to collect plastic waste from the oceans and convert them into repurposed raw materials for producing athletic shoes and other sports apparel.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Upcycling

Similar to other forms of recycling, waste reduction is the major purpose of upcycling. Landfills in developed and developing are nearing their critical capacities, thus prompting the creation of new landfills. However, designating and utilizing a land area for waste disposal has been problematic because it is a major source of land, air, and water pollution, thus endangering the surrounding environment and nearby communities.

Nevertheless, one of the advantages of upcycling, especially if done on a massive scale, is the potential for reducing wastes and unnecessary conversion of land areas into landfills. Of course, because it aims to repurpose items into high-value products, it also reduces the need to extract finite natural resources for raw materials and production inputs. There are notable environmental and economic gains that could possibly arise from this form of recycling.

Below are more specific benefits:

• Some materials used in specific industries are rare. For example, in the technology industry, promoting the consumption of upcycled consumer electronic products and components reduces the risk of scarcity the can disrupt the supply chain of tech companies

• Environmental activists call the process an antidote to mass production and mass consumption. As a sociocultural movement, it encourages consumers to be less dependent on global multinational companies.

• It can be a source of business ideas and business models. Several businesses have been established dedicated to collecting and sorting discarded products or processing waste components to feed them back into the mainstream.

• Several entrepreneurs have built their business around the production and distribution of upcycled products. These businesses include fashion boutiques, home and business furnishing shops, and third-party distributors, among others.

• Another advantage of upcycling is that it is an essential component of a circular economy in which resources are used for as long as possible by getting the most value out of them while in use, and repurposing or restoring their functions once their use is over.

Despite the applications and advantages mentioned above, in some situations, upcycling is not a straightforward process. When applied in arts and design, transforming an unwanted product into a high-value work of art requires ingenuity and some degree of unconventionality. Furthermore, the process also requires some technical competency, unlike traditional artforms.

For industrial and commercial applications, there is a need to weigh the cost and benefit of upcycling, especially if the process of repurposing a discarded product would take a considerable amount of resources or more specifically, if the process is less efficient and costlier than manufacturing a product from scratch.

Below are the specific drawbacks:

• One of the disadvantages of upcycling is cost. In certain scenarios, the cost incurred from the upcycling process can be greater than the actual value of the upcycled product or manufacturing a new product from scratch using virgin raw materials.

• Some products or components cannot be upcycled due to the energy requirement. More specifically, in some situations, some materials may take more energy to process, thus making the entire endeavor counterproductive and unsustainable.

• There are two guiding questions that should be factored in when weighing the cost and benefit: how much energy and resources are required to transform the discarded product, and how do they compare when manufacturing from scratch.

• Processing some materials might also involve using toxic chemicals or the introduction of resource-intensive processes. The drawbacks from the processing inputs might be as bad or even worse than the drawbacks from processing virgin raw materials.

• An example is waste-to-energy conversion or waste incineration. Installing the needed plant is expensive. Furthermore, the conversion process pollutes the environment, thereby harming the ecosystem and communities.

FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES

  • Kay, T. 1994. “Reiner Pilz.” Salvo Monthly. Available via PDF
  • McDonough, W. A. and Braungart, M. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. ISBN: 0-86547-587-3
  • Paras, M. K., and Curteza, A. 2018. “Revisiting Upcycling Phenomena: A concept in Clothing Industry.” Research Journal of Textile and Apparel. 22(1): 46-58. DOI: 1108/rjta-03-2017-001
  • Paul, G. 1998. Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions. 1st ed. Routledge. ISBN: 978-1874719182
  • Rodenberg, R. 2013. “Upcycle Trend Hits Faribault Area.” Faribault Daily News. Available online
  • Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. 2021. “Samsung Electronics Expands Its Galaxy Upcycling Program to Enable Consumers to Repurpose Galaxy Smartphones Into Smart Home Devices.” Samsung Newsroom. Available online