Upcycling - or creative reuse - is the process of transforming waste products into new products and materials. You don't break the product down, but instead, use it to build something else.
The process has several key benefits:
- Cheap materials,
- Reduction in the volume of waste,
- Conservation of natural resources and energy,
- Saves space on landfill.
In China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced in 2019 a pilot scheme to create ten zero-waste cities. The announcement in response to the country's growing food delivery industry, and the resultant increased volume of single-use plastics. But it also reflected a long-standing trend, with China's reported recycling rate increasing by twenty-two per cent in 2014 alone.
Meanwhile, some companies have developed methods to create yarn from plastic bottles, which is then used to create jackets, t-shirts, shoes and other accessories. Recently, Tommy Hilfiger launched one-hundred per cent recycled cotton jeans, using technology developed at the PVH Denim Centre in Amsterdam. Many other brands are following suit.
However, with China recently banning the import of plastic garbage, to increase the recycling of domestic waste, a significant source of wasted resources from Europe and North America is not being upcycled or recycled. Even before China banned the import of plastic, only nine per cent of discarded plastic was recycled in the US, with twelve per cent being burned. Therefore, there remains a vast amount of wasted resources, with both upcycling and recycling providing an opportunity for significant job growth.
Building the foundations of a zero-waste company takes time. We aren’t completely there yet but we can and must do better.
From Waste to Resource
The thoughtful reusing of plastic products can even include by-products from other industries, like the agricultural sector. At Kanso Designs, we use recycled plastics and agricultural by-products, such as bamboo fibre and rice husk, in the creation of beautiful plant pots. Thereby reducing waste and promoting green growth, literally and metaphorically.
Agricultural by-products might usually be left to rot or be burnt by farmers, as is the case with wheat straw, creating air pollution and a public health hazard. But these by-products are a valuable source of resources. With wheat straw being used to create not just plant pots, but paper and compostable packing as well – saving trees in the process. Meanwhile, rice husk is being used to manufacture cement-based building materials that are stronger than some concrete.
At Kanso Designs, we developed a mixture of recycled plastics and agricultural by-products to create our plant pots. By using natural stone and wood, we can radically change the nature of the plastic, producing a biodegradable composite material, that can also be recycled.
With advances in technology, plastic waste can be re-melted and filtered to remove any contaminations, like cellulose, metal or wood pieces. High-quality plastic pellets are then produced for manufacturers to use for injection-moulding new plastic products, from plant pots to piping.
Currently, the recycling of plastic waste is only limited by our imagination. The waste littering the world's beaches, clogging the rivers of Asia and Africa, and causing untold destruction to ecosystems provides the ideal opportunity to revolutionize manufacturing. In the process, we can rethink how to source materials to create products from waste more thoughtfully. Through sustainable recycling, we can improve our environmental footprint, create fulfilling jobs, and produce high-value products. It's no longer a matter of can we do it, only whether we will.