Friday, July 9, 2010

The downside to upcycling

Back when my purse collection was in its prime, it filled an entire printer-paper case, with a few extras lying about here and there. This might not seem that huge, but to someone who likes to avoid clutter, it was oppressive. Last summer, I donated a dozen or so purses, and the collection now fits inside a standard milk crate along with some other apparel-related odds and ends. Why am I telling you this?

Well, I'll come back to that.

One of the current trends in the waste-reduction world is to take old stuff that would ordinarily get thrown away and transform it into something new. They call this "upcycling." Something like adding postconsumer plastic to paving materials would be called "downcycling," because once the plastic has hit the road, it's really reached the end of the road. There's not a lot that can be done to further reuse or recycle that plastic, once it's been mixed with gravel and fused to the ground. And being used for driving on is not what every bottle aspires to. Plastic lumber is another example of downcycled material. If you know a tackier building material than plastic lumber, you let me know. Upcycling, on the other hand, is repurposing material into something of a greater value than the original.

The media is just all aglow with stories of great stuff being made out of not-so-great stuff. People are making jewelry from just about every reclaimed object under the sun. Terracycle fashions cute tote bags from old food wrappers—among many other clever products. And clothes made with cigarette butts? Yes, we've got those too.

But let's not get too excited about it, now. The point I was trying to make with my purse story was that we just don't need that many purses. Or light switch covers, or sandals, or trivets. There's only a finite number of things we can make with would-be junk, and our consumption of the disposable items is pretty much guaranteed to exceed that number.

In some ways, I would go so far as to say that upcycling is a euphemism for downcycling. Higher-quality does not necessarily mean more environmentally friendly, and while upcycled products might look a lot prettier than they did in their original form, they aren't any more recyclable than they were. At the end of the day, your wallet made from tires is still going to end up in a landfill.

I'm not saying that upcycling is bad. But the existence of a use (even if it's a one-time use) for old packaging materials gives manufacturers an incentive to not find greener packaging material in the first place. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to invent creative things to do with our single-use products after we'd used them—because we didn't have single-use products to start with?

Well, we do have single-use products. But as consumers, we have the power to change that. The next time you're shopping, consider the full life cycle of whatever it is you're buying. If you're buying snack chips, you can buy the ones in petroleum based plastic, or you can buy the ones in the compostable bag (way to go, Sunchips!). While a purse made from potato chip bags is greener than a similar purse made from virgin PVC, the earth would be better off if you chose a purse made from cotton canvas—which, at the end of its life, will degrade neatly back into the dust from whence it came. That's closing the loop.

While upcycled goods are a nifty way to make use of the oft-wasted material cluttering our world, ultimately, I hope we learn to focus on eliminating the oft-wasted material at the source, making upcycling obsolete.


Amy Shipley said...

I agree! Good post! :)