In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Upcycling.
The word “upcycling” has been a source of frustration for me for a while now; and recently, that frustration has been on the rise. The reason? Well, it started in the streets, and has spread to everything.
Allow me to explain: my problem with the term is a hangover from a brief journalistic crush I had on asphalt recycling a few years ago. As a cub reporter, I discovered that 5 percent of asphalt is pure oil, which translates into a whopping 160 barrels in just one single kilometer-long road lane. Convinced that the key to our future lay hidden within our vast road and highway network, I delved into the world of asphalt recycling and made two contrasting discoveries. The first gave me great hope: new technology had made it possible to reheat, remix, and relay worn-out asphalt right on the spot, without any degradation of the old materials, and only 20 percent new materials added. But the second discovery downright horrified me: more and more, in a valiant (but, as I found, misguided) effort to go green, highway departments were grinding up old car tires to save them from the landfill, and mixing the rubber into the asphalt. In so doing, they were making it entirely impossible to use the aforementioned technology. In other words, in their effort to “upcycle” retired tires, they had destroyed the possibility to genuinely upcycle something far more valuable.
It is the classic case of short-term versus long-term thinking, and it is something that often occurs in the upcycling world today. While the term “upcycling” refers to the recycling of one product into a new one of equal or higher value than the original, we tend today to think of this in terms of end product as opposed to the materials themselves that make the product. So while it may seem that taking discarded tires and converting them into new shiny roads is upping the status of the tire, now neither the tires’ rubber, nor the oil or aggregate of the asphalt, can be properly and fully recycled without their individual properties being degraded once those roads, too, wear out. In an effort to upcycle, we are actually drastically “downcycling.”
Over time, my obsession with fighting the rubberized asphalt craze has faded. But with the term upcycling becoming trendier and trendier in design—from desks made out of tetrapacks to bicycle-tire belts (both of which, upon their eventual demise, will likely be even less recyclable than they were in their previous states)—I can’t help feel the warrior within me occasionally rear its little head. And I’m not the only one.
Designer William McDonough is one of the people who brought the concept of upcycling to the forefront of the collective mindset in the early 2000s with his seminal book (coauthored by Michael Braungart) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which endorsed closed-loop manufacturing processes. This year, McDonough released the book’s much-awaited sequel: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance, which advocates for entirely eliminating the concept of waste through better design and use of technologies like renewable energy.
“We are defining upcycling in a more holistic way than it is often used, and there are some key distinctions,” he wrote to me in a recent e-mail interview. “I know it can be confusing in the marketplace. There are those who think that putting a zipper on a juice box and making it a wallet is upcycling. They are saying that is a higher purpose. You hear this all the time: the lowly juice box becomes a jacket or a backpack—higher use. But when you think about it, that thing you just made out of something that was never really designed to be recycled in the first place, because a juice box contains aluminum, paper, and plastic—now it just has a zipper on it and it’s still impossible to recycle. So we are trying to talk about this, about upping the quality of things in the world, as you upcycle them into new use periods. This is different than just saying that you’ve reduced the need for more material to go into making things, like that backpack. We are trying to focus on qualification not quantification.”
Now please, don’t get me wrong: like many a pseudo-hipster, I do own a bicycle pannier made of recycled tetrapacks, and am sure that whoever made that pannier undoubtedly did the world a good deed by sparing the extra fabric that would have made the bag if not for those drink containers. But one day that pannier, too, will reach the end of its life, and there will be even less use for it than than there was for the original tetrapacks used for its walls. It’s not that it’s not cool, or making the best out of a bad situation. It’s just not really upcycling. There will be no “up” in its next cycle, if there is a next cycle at all.
So perhaps, of all the things we really need to upcycle today, the term “upcycle” itself is one of them. That way, the upcycled products of today will truly be the starting materials of tomorrow.