Upcycling industry takes a bite out of national waste stream

By Chris Long , written on December 16, 2013

From The News Desk

"I got the idea on Pinterest" is a phrase that's been cropping up more and more often in mainstream conversation. Whereas uniquely repurposed milk bottles and aprons-made-from-old-curtains used to be limited to the realm of dedicated crafters and Martha Stewart fanatics, upcycling -- the art of creating something new from otherwise discarded materials -- is reaching a far broader range of society. And it's a wonderful thing.

Not only is upcycling encouraging more people to look at what they have in a new light, it's also making people think twice before tossing something in the trash. And this don't-buy-it-if-you-can-make-it mentality is already having a positive impact on our environment and, more particularly, on our landfills.

Let's face it, while most of us understand that the needs of modern cultures far outpace the resources available to us, the majority of us don't consider the problem when we're, say, buying a cheap new outfit or tossing out last year's jeans. In fact, most Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing and textiles every year, while the textile industry generates more than 13 million tons a year, or 5.2 percent of the total municipal solid waste generation.

But by promoting the practice of upcycling, we're starting to take a bite out of that number. In 2006, for example, 2.5 billion pounds of fabric were kept from the landfills by used-clothing purchases. By 2011, fabric recycling was up to 3.2 billion pounds.

If you need further proof that upcycling has had an impact on our nation's landfill intake, look no further than the company TerraCycle.

Upcycling as an industry

From bicycle chain-framed mirrors to potato chip messenger bags, upcycling company TerraCycle has collected more than 2.5 billion units of waste since its inception in 2001 and converted it either into chic upcycled items or recycled it into useful products such as park benches and gardening tools.

And they continue to grow.

From upcycling to the ultimate goal of zero waste, TerraCycle works with major corporations as well as grassroots community groups to recycle or upcycle, well, pretty much everything.

Brigades: Brigades are the lifeblood of TerraCycle. From schools to scout troops to offices and even one-person brigades, their goal is to recycle as much waste as possible and, by doing so, support a local charity at the same time. By working with major companies such as Huggies, Frito-Lay, Nespresso and Plum Organics, brigades can sign up to collect previously hard to recycle waste and send it in for points, which can be converted into the following:

  • $0.02 to be donated to your charity of choice
  • To provide meals for hungry Americans
  • To provide clean drinking water to people around the world
  • To preserve wildlife land
  • To offset carbon footprints
  • To plant trees
  • To give a chicken, goose or honey bees to a family in need
  • To give school supplies to a homeless child
  • To redeem for upcycled Terracycle products
Zero Waste boxes: Apart from the obvious non-recyclables such as organics, bio-medical waste, hazardous materials such as paint and pressurized containers, and soiled diapers, TerraCycle has found a way to recycle most of our day-to-day waste. From automotive small parts to prescription drug packaging and even human hair and used gum, their zero waste program allows participants to purchase zero waste boxes, fill them with acceptable waste, and send them back for repurposing. The process completely circumvents landfills and puts items right back on the shelf either as upcycled fashion or recycled products.

Upcycling as a job creator

For every major upcycling company out there, however, there are thousands of small-to-medium businesses and home-based entrepreneurs out there taking their own cut from the municipal solid waste steam and turning a tidy profit at the same time.

In fact, upcycling and reusing as an industry is:

  • currently generating more than $14 billion in revenue a year
  • creating jobs for more than 170,000 individuals
And when you factor in the jobs created by the United States recycling industry as a whole, you're looking at employment for more than 1.1 million Americans at an annual payroll of $37 billion and a gross annual revenue stream of $236 billion.

That's a whole lot of change.

The idea generators

In a small Texas town, a metal artist who goes by the handle Paula Art creates unique flower sculptures from antique faucet handles and oxidized rebar. Her basic concept is "...using as much recycled, reused, and reclaimed items as possible."

Over in Waseca, Minnesota, woodworker Chris Winter creates magnificent pieces of furniture, from bathroom vanities to bed frames, from vintage reclaimed barn wood.

And enthusiastic bloggers are sharing upcycling ideas by the boatload every day. From to, if you're wondering if you can do something with an item before you toss it out, just search for the object with the keyword "upcycling" and you'll be amazed at the results.

Even if you're not recycling or upcycling every item or even one in several items that come through your house, taking a moment to consider what could be done with an object before tossing it out can make a difference. Instead of tossing out an old sweater, for example, consider using the material to make socks or a bag. Repaint old mugs with bake-on ceramic paint or use old bath faucets as towel hooks. The ideas are endless and idea-generating sites are encouraging more and more users to jump on the upcycling wagon:

Pinterest: With five million articles pinned per day and climbing, Pinterest is one of the top sites for sparking your upcycling imagination.

Etsy: An online community of one-person and small business operations, Etsy provides plenty of upcycling inspiration through shared images, sale items and blogs.

Instructables: Having a hard time figuring out how to pull off an upcycling project? Check out the Instructables website for helpful hints and step-by-step guides.

As upcycling and zero waste move more into the mainstream, we need to do what we can to encourage the process and drive others to look at everyday items in a new light. And the best way to get there is to lead by example.