If you are part of the upcycled industry (yes! it is an industry…small but growing), you know that it has its own vernacular, like any other industry. The vernacular is not overly complex, but it’s potentially confusing nonetheless. A lot of it is marketing: people in the biz are simply looking for effective ways to define their work, and some words may simply sound better for them. There’s "recycling," "upcycling," "reclaimed," "reused," "vintage," and even cute portmanteaus like “trashion.” And I’m sure there are more that I am missing.
In my mind, all of this lingo defines in some way where the item in question is on the waste hierarchy. This is what we should be thinking about. When a consumer sets out to acquire something she/he needs or wants, how high up this pyramid is that consumer they willing to go? How can manufacturers and purveyors of “green products” offer products to a broad consumer base that push the consumer up this pyramid? On a case-by-case basis, is the consumer comfortable moving from one level on the pyramid to the next?
Outside of indefinitely reusing something or not buying it in the first place, the broadest word is “recycling,” as all of these other words are really subsets of this concept. Per Wikipedia, recycling is “processing used materials (waste) into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials...” etc. etc. Great, but for me the bottom line is this: we are adding more and more people to this planet, and the planet is not getting any bigger. We need to find ways to reduce our impact. If we have to create something new to serve our needs, let’s avoid dumping that thing under a tree someplace once we are done with it.
On the word “upcycled”: There are lots of good definitions out on the web. The Wikipedia entry works great, and most definitions are in the context of quoting Pilz and/or Braungart and McDonough. In short, this is a perfectly serviceable definition: “Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.”
Two general types of upcycling: In practical terms, upcycling seems to have two subsets. The first is taking materials that today cannot be practically recycled and making them into something useful. The second is taking materials that can be recycled, but rather than breaking down the item into their base elements and building up something new, they are used in some version of their current state. A good example is a glass bottle. When you recycle that bottle, it is broken into small pieces, melted down, and recast into a new item. Upcycling that same bottle could involve cutting the top off, smoothing down the cut edge, and then using it as a drinking glass, just as it is. In both cases, waste has been diverted from the landfill, and in the 2nd case, you have the added benefit of having applied less energy to the base materials in order to return it to something people will use. (Of course, the bottle could have been refilled with a lovely beverage or used as a bud vase, which, from a purely ecological point of view, would have been the best way to go.)
“Upcycled” vs. “reused”: If you are rescuing an old bookcase from the scrap heap, putting a new coat of paint on it, and using it again as a book case, you are not technically “upcycling” that bookcase because it was not made into anything new. It’s awesome that that bookcase has not gone off to the landfill, but with apologies to the many people that “upcycle” in this way, this is a reused item, not an upcycled item. I understand the temptation to call it upcycled, since it is a trendy word and the words “reused” could sound yucky to some people, but it’s not a piece of gum or a band-aid we are talking about here. Plus, these days, you can sell an “upcycled” item for a higher price than you can for an equivalent “reused” item.
Reclaimed, vintage, Trashion, etc.: These words often get thrown into the mix in describing products. “Vintage” has an appeal to many because of the hipster vibe it connotes, or simply because many people like old items better than new ones. The word “reclaimed” sounds better to many than “reused,” even though they are the same thing, and again, we are not talking about chewing gum! “Trashion” is an interesting decriptor, because while much of the word choices mentioned above are about making the consumption of a non-new item commercially more palatable, “trashion” smacks you in the face with the concept of reusing garbage. Cool that it addresses the issues right up front, but at the same token, the wording also could alienate many people. Would you rather wear “trashion,” or an “upcycled” garment?
For all of these words, the wording is important, because selling to a broad consumer base the ideas of not buying new items, or of buying a new product made from non-virgin materials, is what it is all about.
Do you have other words you use, or do you take umbrage with what I’ve written here? (I know I’ve scattered a lot of thoughts about this post!) Let me know in the comments area below.