Trash or treasure? Upcycling becomes growing green trend

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rather than throwing that bag or hosepipe into the recycle bin, how about turning it into a belt or a shower curtain, joining a growing band of upcyclers?

Rio Vizmanos removes labels from recycled plastic bottles to be used in the construction of the sailboat "Plastiki" at Pier 31 in San Francisco, California March 13, 2009. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Upcycling refers to reusing an object in a new way without degrading the material it is made from, as opposed to recycling which generally involves breaking down the original material and making it into something else, using more energy.

Supporters of the environmentally friendly practice of upcycling say people in developing countries have effectively been upcycling for years, using old packaging and clothing in new ways, although more out of need than for the environment.

But upcycling is now taking off in other countries, reflecting an increased interest in eco-friendly products, particularly ones that are priced at an affordable level and proving profitable for the manufacturers.

“If upcycling is going to become mainstream, then the corporate world needs to see that it can be profitable,” said Albe Zakes, spokesman of U.S. company TerraCycle which specializes in finding new uses for discarded packaging.

A growing number of companies are focusing on upcycling although the trend is still in its infancy with industry-wide figures yet to be produced.

Upcycling is used on a range of products including jewelry, furniture and fashion items, such as making bracelets from old flip flops, lamps from blenders, and turning skateboards into furniture such as chairs and bookcases.

British company Elvis & Kresse Organization (E&KO) uses industrial waste to make new luxury products, turning fire hoses into bags, belts, wallets and cufflinks.

E&KO co-founder James Henrit said they avoid what they call “virgin materials,” instead opting for scrap sail cloth or furniture textiles in their lines.

“We are very much a social enterprise, and we’re hoping to change the landscape of the luxury accessories industry by leading by example,” Henrit told Reuters Television on the sidelines of the London Design Festival.

A design store in Vienna in Austria called Gabarage lets customers rifle through trash like used plastic covers, old computer chips, and discarded X-rays and pick what they like to create their own individual bag.

All the single pieces of waste chosen are put together by the creative team of “garbage upcycling design.”

“Upcycling stands in contrast to recycling,” said spokesman Daniel Strobel. “We upvalue products innovatively, instead of just reusing them.”

TerraCycle, set up in 2001 by U.S. college freshman Tom Szaky, turns drink pouches into backpacks and cookie wrappers into pencil cases or kites, paying schools and other groups a small amount to send them the old packaging to be upcycled.

TerraCycle also makes a line of clocks, coasters and picture frames from vinyl records and circuit boards, with major companies like Kraft and General Mills sponsoring the company’s waste streams.

CEO Tom Szaky, in his newly released book “Revolution in a Bottle” -- that came with a returnable book cover for upcycling -- said he was working to eliminate the idea of waste by proving all things can be reused, recycled or upcycled.

“We upcycle waste that can’t be recycled ... we love the challenge of looking at any kind of waste and thinking of something amazing to make from it” says Szaky. “Our products are both greener and cheaper.”

Additional reporting by Petra Spescha, Editing by Miral Fahmy