Upcycling and its Advantages

Upcycling is different from Recycling. Recycling is the process of changing discarded materials into new products to prevent waste.  Upcycling is the practice of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of higher quality or value than the original.

Upcycling, for instance, allows us to transform garbage and toxic waste into resources and moving them up the supply chain. The opportunity to upcycle materials, products, rubbish and toxic waste is everywhere and takes many shapes. The word and concept of upcycling first appeared in William McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle.

On the other hand, recycling keeps materials in the lifecycle for longer, rather than using them one time and throwing them away right after. Recycling allows us to prolong the life of materials or products so that we keep reusing them many times. For example; when plastic bottles are recycled, most often they cannot be converted back into containers for storing food or water due to the risk of toxins leaking into the food or water.

As a result, PETE recycling extends the lives of discarded plastic bottles by turning them into carpets, or fleece clothing. Some recycled products reach a point where they can no longer be recycled, and eventually and inevitably, become trash that ends up in incinerators, landfills, or in the ocean. #1 and #3 plastics, PETE and PVC are a league of plastics on to themselves.

After reaching their end of life; when they are destined to end up as fish and bird food, burnt, or buried, plastics #2, #4, #5 and #6 can be recovered and moved up the supply chain to become raw material and resources once again.

The following illustration represents recycling and upcycling of waste plastics:

Treatment of aluminum cans is the closest to a true upcycling model. These containers can be melted down and made into brand new cans, and in the process save over 90% of the energy required to make brand new cans from scratch. This cycle can be repeated forever, reducing energy consumption and effectively removing aluminum from the waste stream.

People who salvage garbage and turn it into products also claim to be upcycling, such as making furniture from useless washing machines or jewellery pieces from plastic litter that the circular oceanic currents known as gyres deposit on our beaches.  Electrochemical and other process industries frequently vent or flare hydrogen “waste” into the atmosphere. Canada vents over 50 million kilograms of hydrogen annually.

Hydra Energy in Vancouver is capturing the hydrogen that is vented, burned, or otherwise not used, and upcycling it to be used as zero emissions fuel to power hundreds of thousands of cars each year. The only emissions from hydrogen fuel are water vapour.

Tailings are the waste of the mineral mining process and they frequently have to be stored in natural lakes or man-made ponds which contaminate and deplete water resources.

Motoca.ca is introducing the concept that tailings can be upcycled into Autoclaved Aerated Concrete to create blocks and panels for building homes, hospitals, and schools for the local communities impacted by mining operations, and to significantly reduce the costs of resettlements incurred by mining companies.

Plastic garbage found floating in the oceans, rivers and lakes pollutes our fish food-chain and kills thousands of birds and aquatic life each year.

UpGyres.org proposes that plastic garbage floating in our oceans, rivers and lakes can be cleaned up; and using plastic to oil technology, recover the value and energy of those discarded plastics by upcycling them into crude oil and refined low emissions fuel.

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José Luis Gutiérrez-García achieved a Master Certificate in Sustainable Supply Chain Management from the University of San Francisco. He held the Chair of the Sustainability Committee for a remote gold mining operation in the Arctic. Jose is the Principal at Motoca Regenerative Solutions and Project Director at Upcycle the Gyres Society both based in Vancouver, Canada.

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