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Upcycling and Sustainability

 By Kim Robson:

At Green-Mom, we’ve discussed recycling on a number of different levels, from shabby chic decorating ideas, to usesDesign-Dining-Diapers-baby-food-jar-after for repurposed baby food jars. For decades, using recycled materials has been the standard for sustainability. Today, though, the bar is set higher for recycling – now we’re looking at the possibilities for “upcycling.”

As companies work the trend and seek to hit the market with new upcycled products, many of us don’t even know what the term “upcycling” means. A good, but vague, definition of upcyclingcan be that a material has been made more sustainable through a recycling process. But what exactly is meant by sustainability?

If sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of a growing society while limiting negative environmental impacts, then sustainability is probably only about half-scientific — because meeting the needs of society is a subjective endeavor.

4 walls internationalTo most companies, upcycling is about enhancing the value of materials through recycling and transforming something cheap into something valuable. For instance, plastic packaging waste can be recycled into playground pieces, speed bumps or lumber substitute. Or, in the case of 4 Walls International, it means helping under-served communities turn a profit on recycling operations by upcycling the value of materials like trash from materials that others have devalued. This concept falls clearly into economics, the first realm of sustainability.

Meanwhile, author William McDonough maintains that upcycling should be the practice of making materials more environmentally benign and reducing environmental impacts through recycling. Remove a hazardous chemical from a waste material during the recycling process, and it has become upcycled. To the contrary, if a material is transformed via recycling into something that cannot be recycled again, it has become “downcycled.”

But even this thinking is limiting. Under this definition, if an upcycled product is something made with materials that were disposable or less useful in their previous life, then earrings or bracelets made from old newspapers would be defined as downcycled because jewelry doesn’t usually get recycled. But the newspaper served a relatively limited usefulness compared to the years of enjoyment one could have from an artistic piece of jewelry. In this case, a 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 society is central to sustainability, yet it tends to be the most frequently overlooked. The process of manufacturing solar panels is not in any way environmentally friendly, but a single solar panel can provide decades of value to a household or community. Social value is the most challenging aspect of sustainability to understand or articulate. Figuring out what makes someone happy is hardly a scientific endeavor.

In a nutshell, sustainability is an ambiguous blend of measurable achievements and subjective valuations that tell us if the recycle-logoworld has been made a better place. Ultimately, upcycling – and sustainability as a whole – should be about creating a balanced set of values over each of theeconomic, environmental and social realms.

Individuals and companies 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, not just limit ourselves to one viewpoint.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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