Upcycling for Greener Living

See the full article in The Storque

Story by TeenAngster Published on September 7, 2007 in Craftivism
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In the year 2007, being concerned about the environment is not a new or revolutionary idea. The general public has accepted that we’re standing at the crux of an ecological crossroads, and that in order for people to maintain their current way of life, major changes will have to take place in how we raise food, utilize energy, consume products and think about our waste. Just considering the changes necessary for the future can lead many to be intimidated, confused and apathetic about where to start when facing problems as varied as global warming, deforestation, pollution and waste.

Upcycling brings hope as a fresh concept and solution for the many environmental dilemmas the earth currently faces. The idea of taking would-be garbage and reimagining, reusing and reinventing its significance is really quite a novel idea: the materials are free and in frightening abundance, there are (hypothetically) no unhealthy aftereffects for the earth, and consumers gain the satisfaction of reusing something potentially wasteful in a new and exciting context, again and again.

In order to further understand this theory, we must look at its history. The term “upcycling” was coined by William McDonough and Michael Braugart in their groundbreaking book on ecologically-intelligent design,
Cradle to Cradle, published in 2002. In the simplest terms, upcycling is the practice of taking something that is disposable and transforming it into something of greater use and value. It’s a question of designing new products that are intended to be reused again and again and yet again with a minimal amount of harmful byproducts, effectively working as a “cradle-to-cradle” model of production. Here's an example from Cradle to Cradle of the upcycling designer's new intentions: imagine a world where people casually discard used bottles designed to eventually biodegrade into food for the plant seeds embedded in their bases.

This idea comes in stark opposition to the “cradle-to-grave” view of manufacturing originally conceived during the Industrial Revolution, which is still primarily in practice to this day. As McDonough and Braugart put it, the cradle-to-grave model is one where “resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold and eventually disposed of in a ‘grave’ of some kind, usually a landfill or incinerator...What most people see in their garbage cans is just the tip of the material iceberg; the product itself contains on average only 5 percent of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it.”

You may ask what the difference is between upcycling and recycling, as they seem quite similar. According to Cradle to Cradle, recycling is actually an example of "downcycling," whereby unrecoverable and unusable by-products are created in the recycling process. By recycling items toward uses that were never intended during their original production process (example: soda bottles into carpeting), they are effectively “wrestled” into a form that requires as much energy (or moreso) to produce than manufacturing a new carpet. In the end, the rug is ultimately still on its way to a landfill, creating “eventual waste.”

Ultimately, if upcycling proponents had their way, it wouldn’t be enough to merely reprocess trash into new products: there would simply be no trash to repurpose. Any product could be continually reused and upcycled into something useful. It’s a noble goal, and one that inspired Etsy in our recent
Upcycling contest, where we challenged Etsy users to create an upcycled object to sell on Etsy.

Etsy is not alone in attempting to promote “green awareness.” Embracing a green lifestyle and expressing environmental concern has recently been embraced by the mainstream. A variety of ecologically-friendly and markedly stylish products have hit the market as trendy alternatives to the typical. A recent New York Times article by Alex Williams on the nature of green consumerism and its consequences, entitled
"Buying into the Green Movement," stated that the “vision of an eco-sensitive life as a series of choices about what to buy appeals to millions of consumers and arguably defines the current environmental movement as equal parts concern for the earth and for making a stylish statement. Some 35 million Americans regularly buy products that claim to be earth-friendly, according to one report, everything from organic beeswax lipstick from the west Zambian rain forest to Toyota Priuses.”

Matthew Sparkes, a writer for prominent sustainability website, commented that the green movement's rising popularity is due to the fact that “people are far more aware of environmental issues now. There [are] also a lot of very cool green products, which is tremendously important. Buying green doesn't mean sacrificing style or quality. Companies like Freitag are making products from recycled materials that are actually desirable. It's things like that which have helped take environmentalism to where it is now, in the mainstream, teetering on the tipping point.”

While buying “earth friendly” products is a commendable choice, the question remains: are these products really helping any existing environmental problems, or are they merely a trendy option that will soon die out? And what of "greenwashing," wherein companies simply present an environmentally positive image to appeal to green consumers, while making no effort to back up their environmental claims? The Times article points out that green consumerism, while a considerate alternative to conventional buying habits, is still just that — consumerism. Buying more stuff, even if it’s eco-friendly, still produces waste, be it in the production process or the after-effects. “Consumers have embraced living green, and for the most part the mainstream green movement has embraced green consumerism. But even at this moment of high visibility and impact for environmental activists, a splinter wing of the movement has begun to critique what it sometimes calls ‘light greens.’”Williams continues to say that “critics question the notion that we can avert global warming by buying so-called earth-friendly products, from clothing and cars to homes and vacations, when the cumulative effect of our consumption remains enormous and hazardous.”

The sad truth is that we live in a culture of consumption, where buying products to facilitate our lifestyle is a fact of life. However, true greens are asking us to change that mindset. The moral of the story is to think before you buy, and to buy in moderation. Conservation is as important, if not more so, than recycling, reusing or upcycling. With all of the options available to the savvy consumer, the simple act of choosing a brand of toilet paper to buy can really become something to think about.

Maureen O'Connor, publisher of green-savvy lifestyle site, has the following tips for eco-conscious consumers: “I think it’s important for people not to get overwhelmed by the need to become more eco-conscious. Most of us lead hectic, fast-paced lives. We should do our best to make changes as quickly as possible, but realize that we can’t change our entire life, overnight. Sometimes we just need to step back, slow down and take a deep breath. Appreciate what’s around us, and clear our minds.”

“Start by making simple changes, and being more conscious of our surroundings. Replace the light-bulbs with LED’s in your home and office; use re-chargeable batteries, conserve tap water, and my personal pet peeve — bring your own re-usable shopping bag when you go to the store. Support local farms and businesses (to save energy/transportation costs) and buy organic whenever possible. Lose the Hummer.”

“Most importantly, think about the total life cycle of a product before you buy something: consider how it was created, and what you can do with it or where it will end up when you’re through with it. Recycling, upcycling, conserving and bio-degradability are all key issues today.”

So where does this leave us? Ultimately, it’s all a question of choices. When presented with an opportunity to conserve resources, take it When purchasing products, think about their life span, regardless of how green they may claim to be. It will be a long process to change the way the world thinks about the environment, but with a little forethought and awareness, things can change for the better.

William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, has a blog!
To purchase Cradle to CradleTreeHugger

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1 comment:

zJayne said...

I recently came across this word UPCYCLE on Etsy and I'm always using the word REPURPOSED. This blog article is wonderful, helpful and very much appreciated.

Thank you!