Understanding Recycling, Up-cycling and Repurposing and Sustainability. What does it all mean? Am I doing it correctly?

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Today the terms “upcycling” “recycling” and “repurposing” has been used widely in discourse of sustainability efforts. These terms however, are sadly considered to be interchangeable, and many enthusiasts, whom advocate sustainable practices, may be unintentionally passing around an incorrect meaning of these words. As a practice, sustainable is absolutely dire in the ways in which we should all be progressing as a society.

Waste lives and breeds uninterrupted in abundance and is perpetuated by acts of unrestricted thoughtlessness and carelessness as to what happens when our waste leaves our care.

This blog, therefore, aims at defining these terms for you Comrade, so you may better perpetuate sustainable, knowledgeable practices at home, the workplace, with friends, family and future Comrades.

Sustainability:

Sustainability is a broad and hugely tricky idea to get your head around. But in essence, I believe the best way in which to define sustainable practices are those that can be maintained or sustained in themselves, living within the means of our natural systems (environment) and ensuring that our lifestyle doesn’t harm other people (society and culture).

Therefore if an activity is said to be sustainable, it should be able to continue forever. Read more.

 Recycling

For most of us we understand the basis of recycling: a practice that takes an item and targets it for reuse, returning it back to the cycle of daily contribution to society rather than discarding it to trash. Going to the dictionary for confirmation renders the following:

  • To treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse: recycling paper to save trees
  • To alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of: The old factory is being recycled as a theatre
  • To use again in the original form or with minimal alteration: The governor recycled some speeches from his early days
  • To cause to pass through a cycle again: to recycle laundry through a washing machine

Upcycling

Is described by some as reusing a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use. When plastic bottles are recycled, for instance, most often they cannot be turned back into containers associated with anything that can be ingested due to the risk of things seeping into the plastic. As a result, these usually become carpets, or toys, or winter fleeces: things that will eventually also become trash. Recycling has simply prolonged the inevitable by stretching out our waste stream and made the lifecycle costs of the material a bit less.

In this model, upcycling becomes dually important. First, the practice reduces the amount of waste that we produce and ultimately goes into the ground for longer than any of us will be around. Secondly, it also reduces the need for new virgin material to be harvested as feedstock for new generations of product. In the case of plastic, this means less oil wells drilled. For metals, less mountains mined. For paper, less trees felled. All around this means less expended energy.

Our treatment of soda cans is closer to a true upcycling model. These aluminum containers can be melted down and made into brand new cans and in the process save over 90% of the energy required to make new ones from scratch. This cycle can continue in perpetuity, reducing energy consumption and effectively removing certain materials from the waste stream. Newsprint finds similar success.

More than once I have seen people broadcasting their “upcycling” habits like making wallets from tires, or lawn chairs from pallets, or tables from wire spools. These are examples of recycling. None of those materials are going back UP the supply chain (the series of processes that an industry uses to create a product or service.) They are just making the chain a bit longer.

Upcycling represents a truly cyclical, balanced process that all industries and companies should be aiming towards. At this point, just having the aim would be another important step. All of our products could be drastically changed if the beginning of their design started with the goal of not having them end up in a landfill. A number of ways could be utilities to train our economy into an inherent practice of reuse. My personal definition of the term ends up as:

Upcycling: A process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value—moving resources back up the supply chain.

It is important to note that I am not saying that recycling is a waste of time or beyond acclaim. Rather, recycling is a first step in reaching a more comprehensive and sustainable solution of waste management that can eventually limit the amount of new, virgin materials that need to be produced or mined from the earth.

Exert taken from Intercon.

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