Unlike Recycling, Upcycling does not need energy above and beyond the call of duty, but it does require some modification. It is also likely that when you are upcycling you are adding other items to the thing you are seeking to create.

Examples of Upcycling

  • Turning used tires into the soles of shoes
  • Melting plastic bags together to make an insulating internal layer for curtains
  • Cutting up an old T-shirt to make cleaning rags

Let’s put this into practice, how might you Upcycle an empty bag of chips?

To check your answer ask yourself if you or another person could do this with relatively little equipment.  If you’d need to send the object a great distance or use intense amounts of energy then you are probably thinking of ReCycling.  If the idea you have doesn’t require changing the shape or basic structure of the material then you are probably thinking of ReUse.  Upcycle on friends!

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Recycling has been the poster child of diverting the waste stream, but is it really the best option?  Recycling actually takes a lot of energy to do and depending on where you are compared to where the processing center is, and the demand for the materials, it might be more environmentally costly than you think.

When you recycle, everything gets collected and shipped to a center.  The batch gets tested for purity and if there is something that shouldn’t be in there then the whole batch gets rejected and put into the landfill.  Yes, it really is important for everyone to rinse out recyclables and make sure that other waste doesn’t make it into the bins.

Once it has been tested the plastic material gets melted down into pellets (glass and paper have their own process of bailing or break down) and then that ‘new’ material gets shipped somewhere new for processing.  The ‘new’ material then gets heated and melted into a new object.

Recycling is an intensive process, and one which there is not always a demand for the materials.  So what happens when you recycle something and there is no demand?  It gets put in the landfill.  But don’t despair there are other options.  Try going go up the ladder a little and possibly Upcycle, or better yet ReUse that item.

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When it comes to the best possible thing you can do with something once it has outlived its original use, nothing tops the charts like ReUse.

When you reuse an item you maintain its inherent value.  That is, not only the shape that it is in, but the energy that was necessary to make that shape does not need to get put into the process again. Of course, in order to do this you must find a new purpose for the item…

Some examples of ReUse:

  • Using broken bricks to line the edge of your garden
  • Bringing an empty glass jar to the store to fill up with something from the bulk section (make sure to have them weight it first)
  • A holey sock becomes a great applicator for oiling your cutting board
  • A Banana peel can be used to polish furniture before going in the compost

See if you can think of a way to reuse a torn T-shirt.
You can check your answer by asking yourself – Does this process require extra energy (time, effort, heat, etc.?)  If you answer yes, then you are probably thinking about Upcycling.  Upcycling uses the raw materials and with some added energy turns it into a new item.  Learn more about that here. If you answer, no, then you are well along your way to becoming a ReUse expert.

Freecycle is a great way to find a use for items that you otherwise might have to toss and many communities are now creating swap shops or reuse centers.  For more information about Zero Waste and ReUse please check out the Reuse Alliance.

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Guest Lecturer or Learner?

I had the awesome opportunity to connect with a classroom students at Greenfield Community College who are working on their Permaculture Design Certificate this past week.  Invited by their engaging, dynamic instructor, Abrah Dresdale, who requested that I talk about waste.

With an hour to teach and bountiful ideas, I arrived at the classroom and jumped right in.  I have to admit that every time I step into a classroom or workshop I ask myself why I ever left in the first place.  It just feels so right to be teaching, and I am energized in a way that feeds my soul.

In case you didn’t know, I left teaching and private school administration in ’08 to study for my MA in Sustainable Communities an Socially Responsible Business.  While I had always thought that I would go back to teach, life after my degree lead me in the direction of working with businesses and non-profit organizations.

Waste NotThat brings us to today where I’m now launching my first game, Waste Not, on Indiegogo, and increasingly teaching through games and interactive exercises.  This also brings us to why Abrah asked me to come in and guest lecture.

Waste Not is more than a game.  Playing helps to teach about the different possibilities of dealing with what otherwise might be considered trash in a way that uses the least amount of energy necessary; rethinking the cycle so to speak.

So everyone in the course got a card and we played and shared together.  Many creative ideas came out of the room that day (infinity candles, computers with upgradable components, etc.) especially when we got to the point of playing the ReDesign process in small groups.

What I wasn’t expecting is that the feedback I got would be about the greater picture.  While the players definitely had fun and enjoyed our time together, the input that I was given was more whole systems.  One woman commented that she could see the game as a great exercise for any group of people who were trying to problem solve together, and that by playing they’d really be able to do a better job as a group.   Another man agreed that the applications of the game went far beyond learning about waste.  Overall I got to enjoy being both the teacher and student that day and look forward to my next opportunity to do so.

I’m grateful for the comments and suggestions I recieved and will be taking them to heart (including how to store value, or give more points for multiple uses, etc.)

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A Living Game

Waste Not is a living game, meaning that it will be updated as conditions change. Much of what we play with is static, but our lives and behaviors shift as discoveries happen. In the early 90’s all of a sudden someone is making biodegradable packing peanuts where there were none before.

Upcycled Light bulbFor many years incandescent light bulbs just had to be thrown away. With a little creativity and intention, I’ve seen those light bulbs upcycled into vases, oil lamps, and more. While I’m not sure we can really use every light bulb that will no longer cast light, removing as many as possible from the waste stream turns them into resources.

What will creativity and innovation bring tomorrow? I certainly don’t know. That’s the best part of having a game that can be updated to reflect change. The text descriptions can be added to as players write back with their ideas, and as science makes progress.

Progress towards zero waste may one day mean that the understanding of our cycling process is simply understood and products are designed with this in mind. But until we get to that point we need to build and play with the understandings that are a part of the cycle. For example, there is no away. The food system is not a pyramid and more of a circle, or really many circles.

Supporting Waste Not on Indiegogo from now until March helps to raise awareness and help move society towards zero waste. That’s pretty awesome of you!


PS The Earth said to say ‘Thanks a bunch!’
PSS In the next update: Film bags and technovomit…

Christmas Wish List

This year on my wish list for Christmas is for my loved ones to spend less money on me, since buying new gifts can be unnecessarily financially draining.

In order to receive this gift of less waste, I let my family know that used items in good condition would be happily accepted.  I find it fascinating what can be found for free if you just ask. On the internet, Freecycle enables people to connect about items they have and need.  Taking the initiative to be open with those you know about what your needs are could potentially turn up that perfect gift lightly or entirely unused and in storage.

I think it is great when my family can trade, barter, or find someone giving away what they otherwise would have to buy.  This wish of mine also spurred me to look through my own belongings for lightly used items that I no longer or never have used.

Me, a long time ago
Me, a long time ago

Other thoughts on a more sustainable and earth-friendly holiday.

Gift Wrap:

  1. Wrapping gifts in reusable bags which the recipient can either keep, give back or pass along to another person in need
  2. Opting to not wrap gifts at all (can be challenging if you don’t know the person well)
  3. Wrapping in old newspaper or paper bags and then coloring or painting on any additional decoration or adding a simple ribbon.