For the open-minded, non-topical internet user...

Monday, 7 July 2014

Life Gives You Lemons ?...Upcycling 101

Billions and billions of trash get thrown away each year in the form of working electronics, metals, plastic, glass, rubber and other forms of salvageable materials. In fact, the UK alone produces more than 100 million tonnes of trash annually.

Of course, the numbers alone mean nothings, so imagine Lake Windmere - the largest and deepest under the crown's jurisdiction filled one and a half times an year with waste.

Anyway, I'll skip the disaster warnings, because there are too many already and because there is no point in telling you you're wrong in the life you lead, without saying what's right.

And before you tell me recycling is right, you're only half way there. Recycling by itself is amazing and it's so silly of us to no utilize it. There are plenty of materials which can go into production, saving so much money, resources and time.

However, recycling by itself is a destructive act. You take an old car for example and you strip it down, until there is only metal. You separate the parts into several types of metal like aluminium, steel and chrome and then you melt them down in order to cast new parts.

Giant metal recycling facilities use huge amounts of power and fuels in order to achieve the needed temperature. Furthermore, there are manual labour, cranes, storage, cooling and all kinds of other actions needed in order to repurpose the old car chassis into something fit for use.

Also, it's not like they just melt the metal and make something out of it. In the furnace goes a rich mix of chemicals and raw, recently mined metal, along with the salvaged scrap. In fact, depending on the scrap and it's state, a furnace can be filled with a lot more ore metal than salvaged parts. The contents of the mix depends on the type of metal you want to create. Between the steel used in construction sites and the one that goes into your cutlery, there is a pretty big difference in composition, which are determined by what you pour down in that furnace.

The whole process, taken out of context looks like so: you take something; you destroy it; you mold it back into something useful.

And, every step of the way you invest time, labour, resources and energy in order to achieve your goal. But what about if we bypass the "bash it down to liquid state" step and directly use what we have to create something of higher value and usability. That is called upcycling.

The term is pretty new - only 19 years old. The concept and term are both featured in the works of Gunter Pauli:

  • Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions - 1998
  • Upcycling - 1999

where he elaborates on how to reduce the use and need of raw materials, by using whatever is already created as a material for new creations.

I'm planning to read them before creating an extensive content about upcycling, but today I'd like to cover the areas where I've already researched and wrote about.

Upcycling in Arts

Artists have been known to experiment with their work. While not every experiment is successful, trial and error has lead to the creation of a whole new type of art - scrap art.

You can find it bearing many names, but it all goes down to using garbage as building blocks for artistic creations.

The most frequent one you can see is sculpting with discarded parts of vehicles, machines, furniture and whole household objects like cutlery, pots and pans.

The movement of including junk into artwork gained a lot of traction and interest in the 20th century. Since junkyards began filling up with abandoned cars, motors and machinery, some found inspiration and experimented welding them together into large sculptures.

Ultimately, the parts with their embedded texture and features became an incredible building block for modern sculptures.

For more scrap art check out my Buzzfeed article: "4 People That Turn Garbage Into Work of Art".

Of course, arts are not limited to the visual. That's why the residents of Cautera, Paraguay found out how to channel their musical talents and inclinations into upcycling. The city is literally built around the situated landfill and as you can expect, the dump and it's contents are the main income of the residents. Children are born and raised in a place where in order to survive, you have to get the most out of everything.

And yet, even when your life is centred around scavenging in the remains of people's excesses, talent and inspiration can have their place.

Landfill Harmonic is a documentary movie about a musical teacher and a group of children from Cautera, who created working and playable musical instruments out of objects found in the landfill and organised and orchestra.

For more information go to the official website: "Landfill Harmonic Movie"

Upcycling in Design

Design is the science / act of solving problems. Whether it's a technical engineering issue, a logistics complication, a graphical visualization, or anything else, a designer is the one who solves problems and makes it work.

 In order to fully solve a problem, you first what to achieve a working stage. The first step of designing a car would be to figure out how to make it drivable.

 Then, you want to make it desirable, thus you're going to add horsepower, bodywork, internal features, computers, automation and so on and so on.

 Finally, you will want to optimise it, so it's more cost efficient for you and ultimately for your customer as well. Maybe you're going to introduce a propane gas injection system to have a cheaper fuel, you're going to fine tune the engine so you get the best power to fuel consumption ratio, you'll finalise the outter design, so it's more aerodynamic.

 Well, wouldn't it be the most efficient if you could get some parts and pieces from the abandoned car yards and build yourself the entire car for a cheap penny ?

There are billions of cars lying around in the scrap yards ready to go for recycling only because of a flaw here and there and maybe some busted components.

 The truth is, rarely there is a car so destroyed that you can't salvage any working part from it.
 Polish novice mechanic Jacek Mazur hit that same sweet spot and built himself stunning replicas of famous supercars for a fraction of the cost. His best work (as described by himself) is a full blown replica of the McLarren F1.

Normally, this far is worth 5 million pounds, but due to his creativity and ingenuity, Jacek's version had cost him only 20 000 - 250 times less.

Upcycling in Manufacturing

Just as with the car example, thrown away electronic almost always have most of their components working and in decent condition. 
Beside being one of the most dangerous and fast growing waste management problem in the world, e-waste consist of valuable metals like copper, aluminium and even precious ones like gold and silver. Approximately 50 million pounds worth of gold and silver get discarded in the landfills in the form of electronic devices. 
Only 12,5 percent of the electronic get recycled and even less upcycled. In you're regular iPhone circuit boards, wires, cameras, microphones and other internal devices can directly be used in the manufacturing of a new one. Instead, most of them lie in the dump and only a few get downcycled back into raw materials to cast/create new parts and components. 
Only so many refurbished electronics reach the market. The question is "Why?".  Refurbished means some old and most likely flawed electronic device gets an update and restoration back to manufactured-like conditions. It both means the parts inside get upcycled and not end up in the dump; and the total cost of the device plummets up to fifty percent in some cases. 
The negative side is refurbished means a whole lot of bad things to most people - it doesn't work well, it's glitchy and buggy, it will break soon or completely stop working. 
In truth, however, the refurbished item will work just as fine as the brand new one. If you have an authorised and official Apple refurbished, chances are their product and a brand new Apple device will have the same life expectancy.
If you get something form a cheap and unknown refurbisher, you can expect it to last just as much as a cheap copywork of a famous product. It's really that simple. 

Upcycling in Architecture and Construction

While creating a building with waste products from another construction sounds extremely sketchy, there are actual homes created mostly form upcycled materials. 
The Earthship is a fully sustainable home, requiring no connection to public services such as gas, water and electricity it produces and recycles it's resources from the elements and provides modern, 21 century living conditions. 
The next awesome feature of this amazing construction is that it's core components - the walls are created by old tires filled with compact dirt to take shape as huge bricks in the outter walls. All that mass is the core mechanic to keep the house warm or cold, depending on the need. 

The inner walls are created from lighter materials such as cans and bottles. All of them of course get collected from the streets, dumps and landfills, or directly from the recycling plant. 
The Earthship, of course, is not ENTIRELY created by upcycled materials, but even so, it's better than any other construction in terms of sustainability, green energy and price cost. You can generally build yourself one for the stunning amount of ten thousand pounds, which needless to say is unimaginably cheap for your own home. 

I have a more detailed article about the Earthship, so if you're interested, go and have a scroll. 

Upcycling at Home

This last chapter is most likely the least expected and least significant. However in the large scale, a household produces around a tonne of waste annually in the UK, which is relatively one third of the entire waste generation of the country. 
If we manage to upcycle at least some of that waste before it hits the landfills, it would be a huge success on the overall battle. 
While organic trash can only go for bio-fuel production, damaged or uneeded household items can become repurposed interior design features.
Old cans, bottles, tools and even broken or damage furniture like a chair can become a fully functioning aspect of your home, with the proper investment of time, creativity and some manual labour. 

If you're inspired or looking for more ideas, visit "16 Awesome Upcycled Designs"


My final words to say are: "You can do something about it!" Sure, the bulk of work needed to clean our own mess lies within the hands of the authorities, the institutions in charge of disposal and management of waste and the industry who produces most of it, however, you have the ability to do something about it.
If a third of the waste comes out of our homes, it's our responsibility to help and process it to the utmost before handing it further up the chain.
You can start small, you can start slow, but not starting is the same as throwing it on the streets for somebody else to handle.

Hope you guys enjoyed it and I hope it sparked somebody with inspiration to try it out. Thanks for reading and I'll see you for the next one.