One man's trash in another man's city: Up-cycling has a reputation problem

One man’s trash in another man’s city


on June 11 2012

Up-cycling has a reputation problem, our ID intern David explores the world of reuse and finds out how urban materials are more valuable than you think.

Up-cycle (verb) definition: reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. In other words taking something you’re about to throw away and turning it into something you want to keep. All sound a bit hippie-ish? The fact is up-cycling is a much greener version of recycling. By cutting transport distances and CO2 emissions during manufacture as well as eliminating waste sent to landfill, up-cycling projects have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases faster and more easily.

Up-cycling differs from recycling which in most cases can be described as ‘down-cycling’ due to the process reducing or downgrading the quality of the material. Examples can be as small as Ariane Prin’s pencils made from the Royal College of Art’s waste or as big and useful as artificial reefs made from 600 decommissioned subway trains.

Ariane Prin upcycled pencils made from the Royal college of Art’s waste

So who’s doing it? There are currently a few start-up companies formed solely on the idea of up-cycling – TerraCycle set up with the vision to completely eliminate waste. They take non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste and turn it into a variety of products like the M&M’s bag pictured here. Some of the more eco conscious larger companies are also getting involved with these kinds of schemes, as they make good marketing sense and are cheaper than conventional recycling. But in reality, most up-cycling projects are still ‘cute’, little things like plant pots or paperweights and are undertaken at home by eco-living enthusiasts.

TerraCycle upcycled bag made from finished M&M’s packets

As a result, up-cycling has suffered a bit of a bad rep as a housewife’s pastime, like crocheting or making candles. These hobbies are lost to the world of housewifery forever but it’s not too late for up-cycling as groups of young entrepreneurial types are starting to embrace it as a greener way to think about design.

And it’s these entrepreneurial types that interest us the most. In specific, the ones who have their aims set high. An abandoned train terminal in the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the location for an ambitious up-cycling redevelopment plan. LowLine hopes to become the world’s first underground park, utilising fiber-optics to concentrate sunlight and reflect it below ground. The site was built in 1903 and is now 1.5 acres of damp, rusting mess. The plan is to convert it into a public space with farmers’ markets, food stalls, live concerts and other fun stuff. It will become somewhere people can escape the fast paced life up above… and it doesn’t rain!

Current state of Delancey train terminal, the proposed sight for LowLine

Another great up-cycling project goes by the name of Reclaimed Cleveland. These guys are dedicated to preserving the history of their city while at the same time dragging it into the 21st century. There are approximately 15,000 abandoned buildings across Cleveland, which equal millions of tons of material. Their website shows all the beautiful products they are able to turn this salvaged material into and each is stamped with the address of the property that it’s built from. How cool is that?! There are similar projects popping up here and there but the time when up-cycling becomes the standard go-to method is some way off.

Reclaimed Cleveland – Up-cycled candle kitchen furniture 

Reclaimed Cleveland – Up-cycled light pendant 

Just imagine the potential of this type of thinking. How many abandoned old buildings do you see on your journeys? How many times have you thought to yourself “why aren’t they doing something with that?” – Up-cycling could change the way we think about urban regeneration forever and in the process maybe even help save the planet from impending doom. It’s also a great way for companies to be green and cut costs over standard recycling.

So the next time you’re designing something, consider the benefits of up-cycling and use something people don’t want, to create something they do.