Upcycling: Everything Old is New Again
You may have heard the term “upcycling” in terms of crafts and DIY projects – upcycling means that waste materials or unwanted products are given a new life and turned into something useful. Recycling, on the other hand, means breaking down or extracting materials from a product to make something entirely new. Both practices keep items out of landfills, but upcycling keeps items out of the waste stream entirely and reduces the consumption of raw materials when creating new products. On a small scale, upcycling can mean sprucing up clothes that are already in your closet rather than shopping for new ones, or using reclaimed wood to make your own art and furniture. Now, there are companies bringing upcycling to the larger scale, using this eco-friendly practice to create social good.
Queens-based Big Reuse, a non-profit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials, sells flooring, cabinet sets, window shutters, and even high end appliances. All materials are salvaged and either repurposed or sold at a deep discount. All proceeds go toward Big Reuse’s environmental initiatives around New York City, including the NYC Compost Project, and Big!Millworks, an urban sawmill program that reclaims and transforms urban wood waste and trains disadvantaged New Yorkers in the skills necessary to start a career in sustainable building industries.
Other NYC upcycling efforts include UncommonGoods’ Uncommon Collection, which offers products made by independent makers that adhere to strict standards for design and social responsibility (one of which is the use of recycled or upcycled materials), and FlatRate’s upcycling partnership with Salvation Army, which provides customers with specially designated boxes to fill with goods that will be transported by FlatRate to the Salvation Army warehouse in the Bronx.
Upstate, NaturalUpcycling is collecting food and other organic waste and turning it into renewable resources such as electricity and gas. They use a process called anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms break down the waste to give off biogas, liquid effluent which can be used as fertilizer, and separated solids which is used as bedding for animals. Pivot Program provides job training for homeless and formerly incarcerated people, teaching them carpentry and furniture re-finishing skills. They work with only recycled materials, and sell the furniture out of their shop in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
TerraCycle, an international upcycling and recycling company, collects difficult-to-recycle material and repurposes it into affordable, innovative products. For example, their Drink Pouch Brigade collected used drink pouches from schools to make pencil cases, bags, and other accessories. Part of the proceeds from the resulting products went to charitable organizations chosen by the schools who donated the drink pouches. Starting this summer, TerraCycle began a partnership with the Park Slope Food Coop, which allows Coop members (and anyone from the community) to donate materials such as toothpaste tubes, energy bar wrappers, cereal bags, and many other items which would normally have to go in the trash. In return, the Coop receives “TerraCycle points,” which can be converted into money that is donated to nonprofit projects and organizations supported by the Coop.
Want to get involved in the upcycling movement? If you have some hard-to-recycle packaging materials that you would like to donate, you can check the Park Slope Food Coop website for details on collection times and accepted materials. Big Reuse accepts donations of building materials and appliances at their Brooklyn and Queens locations, and will offer pick-up services for eligible donations. Pivot Project will take your discarded furnishings if you’re willing to travel a bit – contact them for more information. NYC Stuff Exchange allows residents to donate or sell gently used goods to fellow New Yorkers, and ReuseNYC will distribute donated goods to local nonprofits. Freecycle is a grassroots, nonprofit movement of people who give and receive stuff for free in their own towns via a message board similar to Craigslist. The NYC Department of Sanitation also has a useful guide for getting rid of common residential household items such as batteries, yard waste, eyeglasses, and cleaning products – many of these can be donated and repurposed through various nonprofit organizations throughout the city.