Re-Imagining Our Waste

What do you see when you stumble across a stack of old newspapers, used CDs, empty beer cans? Most of us see trash. But there’s a new movement of people around the world who see things differently. They fold newspapers into window blinds, craft CDs into lampshades, twist empty beer cans into earrings and weave the pop tabs into handbags. They are upcyclers, and they transform trash into treasure.

Upcycling is the practice of inventing beautiful, useful and surprising products out of waste materials— such as water pumps from salvaged bicycles, solar cookers made from discarded suitcases and car windshields, and jewelry crafted out of soda cans and plastic bags. It is distinct from recycling in that the recycling process often requires large energy inputs and generates unrecoverable and unusable by-products, such as sludge, dross and toxic compounds.

By contrast, the goal of the upcycler is generate as little waste as possible. This is, of course, a radical reversal of the status quo, in which people everywhere churn out mountains of plastic and non-biodegradable waste that threaten to eclipse our living spaces. We prefer not to think about humankind’s truly monstrous creations—like Payatas, the 50-acre, 130-foot-high mountain of trash in the Philippines that supports the livelihood of the ten thousand scavengers who live there, despite an avalanche of waste in 2000 that killed hundreds of them. Or like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that giant floating vortex of plastic that is estimated to contain over one hundred million tons of debris and ranges in size between 270,000 and 5.8 million square miles—at least the size of Texas and as much as one-and-a-half times the size of the continental United States.

Waste doesn’t exist in nature. One species’ waste is another species’ food. When a tree falls in a forest, it creates the nutrients for more trees to grow. Dung beetles feast on feces and contribute to improved soil structure. Dead matter gets processed by microbes and ultimately becomes food. It is only in human systems that we find unusable waste—and even that is a fairly recent phenomenon. Traditional cultures around the world have not had a conception of waste. They recognized that resources were finite and precious, to be used and re-used until their final place and purpose had been found or they could be returned to the earth.

Upcycling isn’t new. But in a world that has shifted its relationship to resources as infinitely disposable, upcycling is revolutionary act—one that is enraptured with waste, reclaiming it as an asset that we find in abundance in all our communities. Today’s upcyclers challenge themselves to re-invent the world by playing with its waste. They construct homes out of discarded auto tires filled with rammed earth. They host “Trashion Shows” featuring dresses made from bird feed bags, vinyl records and discarded Santa beards. They build compost toilets out of plastic bottles, coffee tables out of phone books, chairs out of campaign posters. The list goes on and on—and at an exponentially accelerating rate. In 2006, a Google search on ‘upcycling’ generated fewer than ten resources. As of February 2011, that leaped to more than 396,000. Upcycling is exploratory, playful, filled with make-believe. It is rooted in the spirit of bricolage, a do-it-yourself process of assembling something out of the materials at hand that calls forward the tinkerers, the dreamers and the inventors.

It is the tinkering and the dreaming itself that motivates us to act. Instead of being overwhelmed by the mountain of trash or the downtrodden neighborhood or the exploitation of power, we are inspired to experiment, to try out new ideas, to take ourselves a little less seriously. We do not have to conform to what we already know. Play invites us to explode the boundaries, to distort the familiar. There is no failure in play; we’re not trying to get it right. We’re just exploring our dreams.