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Upcycling. The word.

September 07, 2010

Upcycling.  The word.posted by Jimmy
Several people have asked about the word, "Upcycling." It may be the most important concept you've never heard of. The word was popularized (or at least given birth to) in a 2002 book called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things," by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Upcycling is defined as converting waste or useless materials into new materials of better quality. Which means that, technically, do-over clothes is a form of upcycling. As are zillions of other artsy and crafty things out there, including many of the products sold on sites like Etsy. And while that's all good, we don't want to pretend that if everyone took up crafting, we could eliminate landfills.

The real value from upcycling is going to come on a much grander scale. Turning old tires into road surface materials and sports flooring. (Did you know there are 200 million tires discarded every year in the U.S. alone?). Converting plastic bottles into thermal fabric for new clothing and other products. Making new furniture out of old construction materials. (Check out it's a great company started by our neighbor's son, Chris Kious). These kinds of upcycling projects can help save the planet. But if you have to buy a shirt, why not buy one made out of a discarded cashmere sweater and a t-shirt?

A few more words about upcycling. But first a picture. Yes, upcycling has its own icon. (It's that green upward arrow on the left.)

And upcycling also has an opposite: downcycling. Which is often a by-product of recycling. Think about all that plastic that gets recycled. While it's certainly a good thing, the end result-- the recycled plastic-is often of a lesser grade than the original. Which makes it downcycling.

And one more thing: upcycling is something all our grandparents would recognize. It's often born of frugality and scarce resources. Millions of women made aprons and dishtowels out of flour sacks during the depression. Old coffee tins became storage containers. And when you were a little kid, your mother probably let you make craft projects out of sewing scraps and toilet paper rolls. So here's to upcycling on a scale grand or small.