SOAPBOX – On the Up

Emiliana Silvestri finds out she can now purchase a handbag made from rubbish rather than just filling one with it. It is now time to start upcycling.


So, you’ve insulated your house, replaced all the bad lightbulbs with good ones, composted your food waste, cut out plastic bags from the weekly shop and you’re separating your rubbish for municipal collection. Good for you. But before you slap yourself on the back and make yourself a cuppa with that re-used teabag, there’s a new directive driven by fresh environmental and economic urgency; upcycling.


First coined in 2002, upcycling is analogous to the ‘reuse’ part of the modern mantra triune, ‘recycle, reuse, reduce’; collecting waste materials or products and converting them into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.


Despite being a positive step in the right direction and a whole lot better than whacking waste into landfill, the problem with recycling is that the original material is ‘downcycled’, degraded or broken down into constituent materials that are then reused.


This obviously requires massive energy consumption and, more often than not, generates considerable pollution in the process; recycling paper normally involves highly toxic de-inking chemicals and bleaches, recycling glass is shatteringly inefficient and plastic requires chemically complicated, expensive processing due to the vast panoply of different, incompatible polymers that are out there.


So, where downcycling reduces the quality of the materials, upcycling aims to maintain or improve their quality and has been practiced by our ancestors for millennia until the 1960s and the emergence of disposable commodities (sorry, ‘junk culture’), and still is in developing countries out of necessity. Shanty ingenuity is humbling in its breadth; car tyres make excellent soles for really, really long-lasting sandals, plastic bags can be woven into extremely strong rope (baler twine basically), flip-flops in Kenya are sculpted into beautiful tourist trinkets, coke caps cobbled into wire baskets and I once saw a canoe made out of an American bomb casing in Laos, an improvement in application the occupants appreciated, I’m sure.


Over here, we’ve all seen bird-scarers made from scratched CDs (weren’t the original CDs supposed to be scratch-proof? The music moguls must have since built in obsolescence, the cunning devils), wool from old blankets placed around plants completely freaks out slugs. Companies are knocking out handbags, wallets and phone cases made from used candy wrappers, and E&KO making headway with ‘ethical fashion’. Pioneers of all things eco, the Eden Project shop is full of innovative upcycled items, and venturess like provide simple ideas for reducing what goes in the bin.


Perhaps the most high-profile demonstration of upcycling is David de Rothschild’s beautiful, 60ft yacht, Plastiki, made using 12,000 upcycled plastic bottles (the same number consumed every 8.3 seconds in the US), which he and his crew are currently sailing from San Francisco to Sydney to draw attention to the 6 million tons of trash that ends up in the world’s oceans every year. This astonishing quantity of refuse has created vast floating islands of garbage, or gyres, slowly revolving on the oceanic currents where it decimates seabird and fish populations before, eventually, grinding down into a molecular paste that then goes into the food chain (and so up it, to us). The Pacific gyre is estimated, almost incomprehensibly, to be at least twice the size of Texas. You can get on board at


Clearly a few sartorially ‘iffy’ belts made out of old hosepipes and wallets made from bicycle tyres ain’t gonna cut the mustard, and while these initiatives are excellent ways of reminding us how much we waste, there’s a danger of recreating or compounding the complacency that recycling seems to have lead us to; once we’ve put the tin in the correct segregated bin, we are inclined to believe the problem solved. It isn’t, and despite our ‘best’ efforts things are getting exponentially worse.


At the risk of repetition, soap-boxing and stating the obvious, the solution – the only possible solution – is also there in the mantra; reduce. This is a bitter pill to swallow, not least for the consumer, brainwashed as we are from birth to buy things we don’t need and utterly obsessed with ‘shiny stuff’, but especially for the politico-economic system, upon which our consumption of the finite resources that sustain us depends. You can see where there might be a problem.


For politicians, arguably mere lackeys at the bidding of the free market, to suggest we buy less or in any way consume less is electoral suicide (cf. Lib-Dem Susan Kramer’s attempt to tax second car owners in Richmond). Nevertheless, the concepts of eco-capitalism and (oxymoronic sounding) sustainable economics need to be embraced like lost siblings as a means of overcoming our current catastrophic relationship to money; namely the hoarding and converting of rapidly depleting natural resources into goods.


Eco capitalism, the principle conceived by the green movement that natural resources possess an economic benefit to humans since it is ecological yield upon which all wealth depends, therefore tampering with nature destroys rather than creates value and shouldn’t be rewarded with assistance or subsidies from the state. This is, hopefully, language economists can understand and advocates, amongst things, monetary reform and eco-friendly business policies.


Sustainable economics, which occurs at the most basic level when people start exchanging services and goods without money being involved, is the stuff of an economist’s nightmare (and, were they to use the term, they’d likely be out of a job).


If we conserve, instead of consume, we need less, spend less, use less, burn less oil and the GDP nose dives, sure, but it could lead to us breaking out of the monetarised, consumerist society where everything, whether service, experience, sustenance, must be bought and where the pressure of debt maintains the mechanism.


The economic system as it exists today apparently assumes that exponential human growth will continue forever. That simply cannot and will not ever happen, so it must surely be prudent to cap our consumption even if zero waste means zero growth, before it’s capped catastrophically for us.