How does upcycling help to minimize waste?

Upcycling, recycling…words that we hear more and more often nowadays. But do we know what they actually mean? What is the difference between them? And most importantly - how do they help with waste reduction? 

We discussed it with designers from NAHAKU. 

Let’s start with the term “product’s life cycle.” You will soon understand why. If we want to asses the environmental impact of a certain product, we have to take its whole life into account. From resources’ extraction, production and usage to its disposal. Let’s take a plastic bottle as an example. Have you ever wondered what does it take to produce it? Someone has to design it, a lot of material is wasted during prototyping, someone has to get the material, which has to be transformed into a bottle, the bottle is then transported (probably over half the world) to a drink producer to be filled and eventually to a store where someone is going to buy it. Drink the content and throw it away after a couple of minutes. Okay, some of us would wash the bottle and reuse it, but still. Isn’t it just strange that the production of a bottle takes so much time and so many resources are needed, while its usage time is so short?! As the guys from NAHAKU mentioned (and they were right) - if we think that we will erase the bottle's environmental footprint by throwing it in the recycling bin or that it will simply disappear there - we’re wrong. All those things that were needed for its creation can’t be erased just by being thrown in the right trash bin. We’re not saying that recycling is bad - quite the contrary - but we want to show that assessing product’s environmental impact is not that easy and its evaluation can't be based only on where we threw it after usage. 

If we want to compare the eco-friendliness of a certain products - e.g. plastic, glass and stainless steel water bottles, we need to do the “LCA” (Life Cycle Assesment). This means taking into account the environmental impact of the material extraction, the production, how long is the product being used and finally, what happens to it when we throw it away. 

We just want to open people’s eyes. Then it’s up to them to decide what is “green” and what not.” 

We have a good base for further reading now. What is actually recycling and upcycling and what is the difference between them?  Recycling is most often defined as material usage of waste, which means breaking products down into their raw material, which is then used for production of new objects. Let’s take the example of a plastic bottle again. It is grinded into a granulate (small flakes), which then serves for creation of new materials. It’s important to mention that many materials (e.g. paper) degrade every time they are recycled. Also, products that are made from various materials - i.e. a fridge or a microwave, need to be dismantled in order to separate all the materials and eventually recycle them. And that is quite a difficult thing to do. Upcycling is usually referred to as transformation of waste into products of a higher value and quality. A brand new product is made from waste - nothing is being dismantled, sorted out or grinded into flakes. Upcycling gives waste a new life, meaning that it actually postpones its recycling (or any other way of disposal). In other words, upcycling makes product’s lifetime longer.  If you come across the explanation that upcycling is just a higher level of recycling, it’s not true. Upcycling and recycling are two different things and they deal with waste differently. 

We were shown a real example of upcycling by Josef and Kuba from NAHAKU design studio. They give new life to different kinds of waste by making design lights, bowls or flower pots.

This light is made from a “prosecco keg” (20l barrel used for prosecco on tap). 

“It’s usually quite difficult to actually get the waste.” say the designers. In the case of prosecco kegs, there is no reverse logistics and so they get it from their friends, who do caterings etc. Nevertheless, the two guys are currently discussing a deposit system and reverse logistics with the exclusive supplier of prosecco kegs to the Czech Republic. 

...this one is from corrugated iron...

…and this one is from an old fire extinguisher. The designers get them from a company who does their revision.

You can also make vases and other tableware from old extinguishers...

“We want to show people that things can be done differently.” 

Well, you certainly opened our eyes. You reminded us that not everything that looks eco-friendly actually is. You showed us that seeing waste as a source is just a matter of our perception. Your work is truly inspiring and we're looking forward to see you next time here!

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