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The Importance of Re-Purposing

Updated on February 23, 2011

Burn it or Bury It

The term re-purposing has recently entered the popular lexicon along with the term upcycle. Both these two words connote important new ideas about recycling. Imagine the world suddenly stopped producing new consumer items tomorrow. How would we survive? The answer is by re-purposing and upcycling.

There can be no doubt that the world’s natural resources are being placed under greater and greater strain by growth in human population and its demands for food, water and other consumer items. Oil, water, wood are all natural resources that we use with profligacy. So much of what we buy has planned obsolescence. And when we are finished with a product we throw it away either to later burn it or to bury it.

Upcycling and Downcycling

Recycling was the first step in changing this draining paradigm. The first large scale recycling projects were mostly downcycling. This is when the waste products such as aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles are gathered in large volumes and then crushed, melted or otherwise processed to produce a basic, raw material such as aluminum or paper pulp that can be used to make other goods. Downcycling only works with large volumes (almost encouraging consumption) and needs heavy investment in terms of machinery, transport, equipment etc. Some downcycled products such as plastics make a commercial loss and need to be subsidized.

Downcycling is part of the same mindset as the problem it seeks to address: it is a carbon costly enterprise that deals in large volumes and mechanized processes.

Upcycling is very different in nature. Upcycling is all about being imaginative, using human skills and escaping the mechanized and robotized conveyor belt. Upcycled goods are unique rather than uniform and need people not machines.

Examples of upcycled products are sandals made from truck tires, models made from coke cans, hats made from reclaimed knits, laptop cases made from old wetsuits. These are all products that have added value to the materials they were made from. That is why it is upcycling – it is making something more valuable.

As you can see upcycling and re-purposing are very similar. To find a new purpose for a discarded item is to upcycle if that purpose has a viable commercial value.

We can re-purpose our own waste directly or we can buy upcycled products. Amazon now stocks a few upcycled goods and also sells books with upcycling projects described. The internet is also a great resource for ideas about re-purposing and upcycling.

Imagination for the Future

In the future companies will make products that are upcycle friendly – in other words, they will be designed to be taken apart and reused. Likewise, if we must use plastic then plastics should be made durable and amenable to alteration and re-purposing. Otherwise, we should only be making biodegradable plastic. These are the only viable solutions to the plastic pollution that is clogging up rivers, seas and piling up in landfill sites everywhere because the downcycling of plastic involves so much carbon expenditure it is largely defeating its own purpose.

Finally, local communities will follow the Dutch example and put out all their interesting rubbish – furniture, clothes, books etc. – and people with certain re-purposing and upcycling skills will be able to find materials free of charge. This means their products can be competitively priced and tax payers’ money needn’t be spent on trucks to collect and dispose of the rubbish.

People will learn skills and develop an instinct for re-imagining products. If the world stopped making consumer goods tomorrow, the world would not end. We would still be able to get clothes, furniture, toys, bags, shoes, ornaments and electrical devices only they would all be unique and made from already existing products. There might be an initial period of confusion and shortage, but eventually the world would be made a place of little litter and much less pollution. And also without the lure of consumer items to buy, people might re-assess their former infatuation with ‘money’ and ‘career’. Or maybe I imagine too far.


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