Danish Upcycle: Why should we upcycle?

This second blog in the series: Danish Upcycle will explain 'why should we upcycle?' and will give you a variety of arguments and concrete principles for good upcycling with plenty of examples.
Danish Upcycle series Number 2
References:  Information from scientific articles and websites are marked by superscripted numbers. Examples: one fact1 or Mr. J. DoeA said: “quote”
Reading time: 15 to 20 minutes of comfortable reading
Author: Matthijs – see bottom of page for bio

Continuing the series

The previous blog post on Danish Upcycle, gave an answer to the question: What is upcycling? I explained that upcycling means ‘taking a used material and converting it into something new with more value and/or quality’. Additionally, I explained that upcycling is, historically speaking, a very natural thing, but our culture has shifted to a ‘throw away’ paradigm in the last 70 years. Now, upcycling can help change this shift as the more practical part of the concept ’circular economy’.  Specifically for TagTomat upcycling has the following principles:

  • Use of leftover materials from local partnerships as much as possible (between 0-300 km away)
  • Fitted to existing industrial standards (A4 paper, EPAL pallets, Ice cream boxes etc.)
  • Suitable to be done both at home (DIY) or by TagTomat for the customer

You can read more about what upcycling is in this blog. This second blog post is dedicated to the question “Why?” and will also finish with a small, yet strong, set of principles of what makes a good upcycled product both for companies and individual upcyclers (hopefully like yourselves).

Issues in the current waste stream (citizens and smaller companies)

“Think out of the box – and get the local business community to do the same.
Make a virtue of necessity – For example, think of patinated wood which is beneficial for designing and can be a direct incentive for upcycling solid wood from the recycling station.”
Miljøstyrelsen of the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food A

the throw away paradigm

In the case of upcycling the overall issue is the current material/product flow. We live in a world with a ‘throw away’ paradigm where products are replaced quickly and old ones are disposed. Still, there is only a limited amount of resources and old products are usually landfilled or incinerated, which is polluting the ecosystem and depletes resources.1

In 2016 the global recorded waste produced by the whole population was 2.01 billion tonnes. The average Danish citizen is producing a relatively large part in this with around 800 kilo of waste per person/year in 2015. It is also expected that if the world continues this way, the annual waste will grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050.2 This even excludes the industrial waste which is managed inside the industrial sector to directly recover materials from the waste stream.3

Issues with municipal solid waste

The municipal solid waste of citizens and smaller companies (like TagTomat and some of its suppliers), on the other hand, is managed by the municipality as public service. In Denmark the majority of this waste with 53.4% is incinerated (for use of central heating/electricity). Additionally, 44.7% is recycled and 1.7% is landfilled. From a resource saving perspective there is thus room for improvement by turning away from landfilling and incineration and towards reusing, upcycling and recycling.4

Waste materials upcycled by TagTomat

Currently, the municipal waste management is done on non-profit basis to keep the costs low for citizens and the smaller local companies inside the city. Yet, this creates a mindset focused on cost efficiency and reduction. With this mindset it is, however, hard to see waste as something that can also create value via circular economy and upcycling instead of only costing money.4 Even more so, there already exist better and more technologically advanced resource separation systems, which save materials, but these face several obstacles on introduction.3

  • First, a new system is expensive to own and manage.3
  • Secondly, there are already waste management systems in place and in Denmark waste incineration systems already supply heat and electricity, which should have to be replaced.3
  • Thirdly, many systems have failed because of citizens not separating waste properly and/or continuously3 perhaps because they don’t have all the info on how to do it.
  • Finally, they also don’t always know/understand the reasons for why they have to separate their produced waste.3,5

On top of that, most companies also have insufficient information to change their habits towards upcycling or are afraid of high costs and impossibilities. Additionally, misunderstanding of what upcycling or its related concepts are might even cause negative environmental consequences.5 Yet, with the right upcycling mindset and system, we could potentially even benefit, not only economically but also environmentally and socially.

The incineration plant at Amager burning waste in exchange for heating and electricity

The Benefits of Upcycling

“It’s a clear advantage to upcycle/recycle [translated from the Danish word ‘genbruge’]. First of all, we save energy otherwise used to produce new products, and we avoid producing useless leftovers, we have to handle afterwards, he says and continue: Secondly, we save a lot of CO2 because we save energy, but also because we avoid burning of products containing fossil carbon.”
Tjalfe Poulsen, Associate Professor at the department of Environmental technology at Aalborg University(Denmark) and expert in the field of waste management B

Short term benefit: Waste reduction and saving landfill space

Upcycling will be reducing solid waste or at least stop/delay putting more waste in landfills or incineration systems. Secondly, a product’s lifetime can be extendedand so the initial energy put into the material by the manufacturer is used for a longer time.6 In doing so, demands for new raw material and energy are eliminated, which is both environmentally and economically positive. With Product Recreation (any kind of transformation of used/wasted materials and products to give them higher values and qualities) there is also no demand for new products and so no new manufacturing process is needed either, saving again, raw materials, energy, costs, emissions.5
One rule of upcycling at TagTomat is also to use wasted or discarded materials or new products but from an existing industrial standard. This forces the company to minimize the demand for new materials and saving some from incineration or landfilling.

Long term benefit: Elimination of the concept of waste

On a larger scale, upcycling could(theoretically) even eliminate the whole concept of waste.5 Chemist Braungart and architect McDonough created a sustainability concept called cradle to cradle, which envisions a circulating flow of materials as opposed to the current cradle to grave where materials are completely discarded. Here materials keep being seen as resources instead of waste and every time they circulate more ‘intelligence’ (or informative value) on the material gets generated. In this concept, materials are kept from doing harm to the environment and intelligence can be translated into economic value and that’s why they call this upcycling as well.7

Transportation of upcycled material

Upcycling can also save energy in transportation. The less the wasted products/materials travel, the more energy is saved and thus upcycling is most environmentally friendly when wasted material is reused at home5 or by local companies.

A connected benefit to transportation might be self-sustainability. A large part of Europe including Denmark relies on import of goods, yet again we throw a lot of material away as well keeping ourselves reliant on the new materials from abroad. The top five countries Denmark imports from are: Germany(GR), Sweden(SW),The Netherlands(NL), China(CH),Norway(NO)8. This seems like local trade but, especially Germany and the Netherlands also rely on import from China and the USA and for raw materials this reliance is much higher.9,10,11 So this isn’t only about the energy saved on transport, but also about slowing down the import in general and rely more on what is already brought to us, the visual below illustrates this situation.

Situation of transport of goods to Denmark. For references see C.

Developing countries developing by upcycling

As briefly explained in the previous blog post, upcycling is practiced and beneficial in developing countries too and can reduce poverty.5 Recycling without municipal support is a source of income for individuals in developing countries and provides just enough money for the low costs of living.12

This also lead to the development of thriving businesses in both recycling and upcycling in African countries. In a blog post from Africa.com, ten examples are given of entrepreneurs who made a business out of recycling or upcycling. Especially, discarded plastic (bags) and car tires are used for upcycled products like, school bags, fence posts, shoes, tiles, floor mats and so one. Due to poor waste management, waste like plastic and tires are problematic in some African countries and these up-/recycling companies help clean up the local environment. Furthermore, some of the companies are also solving social issues like demand for study lighting, support of disabled people, support of young artists, woman empowerment and local job creation. On top of that, the companies are growing financially and some have large revenues.13 

One good example, solving all three sustainability pillars, is the Kenyan social enterprise called EcoPost founded by Lorna Rutto. The company upcycles plastic waste into fence posts used for guarding areas like houses and forest reserves. Plastic waste is a big environmental problem in Kenya and by upcycling it from garbage cans and dump sites the company is not only saving the local environment but also saving forests otherwise cut down for wooden fence posts. Additionally, the company now provides 300 jobs and has an annual revenue of 150,000 dollars.13

Lorna Rutto showing the machinery for upcycling fence posts

Company ‘Repurpose Schoolbags’ showing upcycled school bags with solar panel for charging study light. Photo courtesy by Africa.com

Personal well-being

Finally, upcycling can have an impact on a person’s well-being. Particularly, when individuals do it themselves or locally, upcycling can be an experience of learning and value realization, upcycling can also be empowering where you become more skilled and self-reliant. It can create a sense of community and can be stress relieving and relaxing.5

Upcycling can create a wide range of specific benefits, depending on the purpose of the newly upcycled product. For example, TagTomat is first and foremost an urban gardening company. Urban green spaces also provide social and psychological benefits like relaxation and recreation.14

Urban green space with upcycled plant boxes by TagTomat

Relationship waste and waste producer

So one of the issues of saving resources is that, as citizens, we pay for our waste and could reduce these costs by separating waste consistently. It also means that creating a resource saving system isn’t just about efficient technological development, but also about information, communication and changing culture.3,4 Especially, the social benefit of upcycling can help with this issue, because it provides “inherent understanding of objects, merge disciplines, cultures and experiences, and create subjective and individual beauty while keeping the sentimental value of a used product.”5
The high amounts of waste created could be a cultural side effect of excessive consumerism, which is mostly visible in Western countries (the U.S. and parts of Europe).5 One way to change this is by adding a financial motivation in the form of “a return fee system for those waste materials for which recycling are desired.”12, like the Danish PANT system. This system would be most effective when it was done for all products or packaging, for it would remove selection of certain objects, leaving part of the waste in the currently needed waste stream.12

Still, this system might be effective, but it doesn’t directly change the consumerist culture. To do so, upcycling might inspire peoples’ thoughts and spark ideas for people to use their everyday objects and waste products in different and new ways. Especially, packaging is undervalued for there is put great care in its design and manufacturing. Yet, After the good is out of the package, it loses its connection to the user. Packaging is generally thrown away without a second thought, but most often it is still functional as container and has little damage to it.15

Example: Milk package

The milk package is a good example of such an everyday object, which is immediately thrown away into the general waste bin once the milk is out and the only thing different from the start is that there is a hole in the top. Yet, it can still keep in liquid matters and the hole can usually be sealed again, especially the ones with a cap. With an upcycle mindset, TagTomat realized that the milk package can have a second life cycle, by putting in pasteurized straw and Oyster mushroom mycelium to become a mushroom growing kit. The wonderful part, is that this is just one solution out of many to give the packages new value. Another could be to use a package as a plant box, a incubator for smaller plants, or maybe even a cocktail shaker.

TagTomat likes to challenge you to start upcycling yourself by thinking of some more useful examples for upcycled milk packages at this moment and share them with us and fellow members in the TagTomat forum.

Process of creating a Oyster mushroom growing kit (Svampebox) from a milk package

General principles for good upcycling

When there are benefits to upcycling it does not necessarily mean that all upcycling activities have a positive impact. There are multiple ways in which upcycling can do more harm than good1, for example by combining materials that are easily recyclable but fixed together have to go to the landfill.16 In general, all products will degrade over time and so will upcycled products. This means that upcyclers should also think about what happens to their products once it can no longer fulfill its purpose. The following principles can help upcyclers to create new products that have a positive sustainable impact:

  • Use local waste – Minimise transportation by using used/wasted materials from local sources.15
  • Material Selection – Don’t use materials which had high complexity and (environmental) costs in their first manufacturing phase, like electronic circuit boards. These materials are better of properly recycled in order to reduce primary production.15
  • Future lifecycle – Don’t combine different materials which are hard to separate at the end of the product’s lifecycle. For example, use screws and bolts or other mechanical connections over glue or welding.15
  • Long lasting products – Make products with a long lifetime and high quality in order to slow down consumption and so reduce environmental impact. Additionally, try to  make products which create personal attachment and which are therefore kept longer.15

A personal conclusion

Street art (Nørrebrogade 92, Copenhagen): “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

I would personally like to add that upcycling, especially at home, is a subjective activity with subjective results. Creating new or more value is different from person to person. So, when you start upcycling, think about what it will help you with or what needs it will satisfy and maybe also for how long? Finally, I believe upcycling is a concept against global consumerism. Wouldn’t it be great if we can get a bit more independent by changing our attitude towards things we throw away? Imagine that local production(at home or by local companies) can save some of the wasted resources and will give useful crafted products for it in return. Upcycling might not save all the waste from landfilling and incineration, nor can it save the environment on its own. Still, upcycling is a solution which can have a direct impact in the present and can inspire people to change their mindset and consuming behavior. You can change now and do a step forward towards a more sustainable life style, upcycle products in your waste bin and you don’t need to buy it from TagTomat anymore!

The next blog post will be less scientific and more practical as I will write more about Danish Upcycle, which is the TagTomat way of upcycling. Meanwhile, take look at the following examples for more inspiration.

Ski bench: Esquis reutilizados como um banco. Creative Commons license created by Victor Grigas accessed via:pt.wikipedia.org

Large plant box with integrated irrigation system of TagTomat, build from an old industrial transportation crate and a pallet.

Earth ship: a Bottle Wall of an Earth ship Bathroom Creative Commons license by Victor Grigas accessed via:commons.wikimedia.org

The Kitchen plant box by TagTomat, made from an old ice cream box as irrigation system, reused plant pots and discarded wood from a furniture company.

References

1. Jepsen, Anita T, Pedersen, Anne B, Andersen, Sisse V, 2018, Consumer activation in circular economy: Towards an understanding of implementing upcycling as a means to establish a circular business model, Master thesis, Aalborg university, page 17 and 18
2. Kaza, Silpa, Lisa Yao, Perinaz Bhada-Tata, and Frank Van Woerden. 2018. What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban Development Series. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648 -1329-0. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO
3. Poulsen, T. (2013). Materials recovery – a challenge for municipal solid waste managers. Waste Management & Research, 31(9), pp.879-880.
4. Zacho, K., Mosgaard, M. and Riisgaard, H. (2018). Capturing uncaptured values — A Danish case study on municipal preparation for reuse and recycling of waste. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 136, pp.297-305.
5. Sung, K.,(2015) International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, At Venice, Volume: 17, p.28-40
Quote used from page 31
6. Han S., Tyler D. & Apeagyei P.  2015 Upcycling as a design strategy for product lifetime optimisation and societal change, PLATE conference – Nottingham Trent University, 17/19 June 2015
7. Braungart, M., McDonough, W. and Bollinger, A. (2007). Cradle-to-cradle design: creating healthy emissions – a strategy for eco-effective product and system design. Journal of Cleaner Production, 15(13-14), pp.1337-1348.
8. Danmark Statistik, (2018), International trade in goods. [online] Available at: https://www.dst.dk[Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].
9. Simoes, A. (2018). OEC – Germany (DEU) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners. [online] Atlas.media.mit.edu. Available at: https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/deu/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].
10. Simoes, A. (2018). OEC – Netherlands (NLD) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners
. [online] Atlas.media.mit.edu. Available at: https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/nld/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2018].
11. Simoes, A. (2018). OEC – Sweden (SWE) Exports, Imports, and Trade Partners. [online] Atlas.media.mit.edu. Available at: https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/swe/ [Accessed 2 Nov. 2018].
12. Poulsen, T. (2014). Future informal waste material recycling: Implementation of return fees?. Waste Management & Research, 32(10), pp.937-938.
Quote from page 937
13. Oniang’o, M. (n.d.). 10 Young Afripreneurs Creating Solutions By Recycling and Upcycling – Africa.com. [online] Africa.com. Available at: https://www.africa.com/10-young-afripreneurs-creating-solutions-recycling-upcycling-waste/ [Accessed 22 Oct. 2018].
14. Herman, K., Sbarcea, M. and Panagopoulos, T. (2018). Creating Green Space Sustainability through Low-Budget and Upcycling Strategies. Sustainability, 10(6), p.1857.
15. Bridgens, B., Powell, M., Farmer, G., Walsh, C., Reed, E., Royapoor, M., Gosling, P., Hall, J. and Heidrich, O. (2018). Creative upcycling: Reconnecting people, materials and place through making. Journal of Cleaner Production, 189, pp.145-154.
16. Matthew Wilson, (2016) “When creative consumers go green: understanding consumer upcycling”, Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 25 Issue: 4, pp.394-399, https://doi.org/10.1108/JPBM-09-2015-0972

References from quotes

A. Miljøstyrelsen, 2015, Lokal genanvendelse af genbrugspladseraffald i en cirkulær økonomi (2015 E) via: https://genanvend.mst.dk/projekter/projektbibliotek/2015/lokal-genanvendelse-af-genbrugspladsaffald-i-en-cirkulaer-oekonomi/

B. Mathias Bohn, 2013, Affaldsekspert: Upcycling afhjælper affaldsproblem, DR, Via: https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/affaldsekspert-upcycling-afhjaelper-affaldsproblem

References from visual

C. covering the following:

1. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Kirsten Pommer, Pernille Bech, Henrik Wenzel, Nina Caspersen and Stig Irving Olsen 2003 Handbook of environmental assessment of products The Danish Environmental Protection Agency, May 2003, page 82
2. Dartmouth.edu. (n.d.). Useful numbers 5 Transportation. [online] Available at: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~cushman/books/Numbers/Chap5-Transportation.pdf [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].
3. Sea-distances.org. (2018). SEA DISTANCES / PORT DISTANCES – online tool for calculation distances between sea ports. [online] Available at: https://sea-distances.org/ [Accessed 25 Oct. 2018].

Author

Hello, my name is Matthijs and I’m an intern at TagTomat and in the autumn of 2018 I’m going to work with the term upcycling and see what more it can bring to TagTomat and its community. I’m studying the master Sustainable Design at Aalborg University. The study teaches how to design concepts, products and services with a sustainable impact and how these designs (can be) fit into contemporary society.

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthijshofte