“One man’s trash is another man’s sustainability breakthrough”
As the green movement continues to accelerate, sustainable brands and businesses are forming entirely new value-chains for their processes and products to minimise the global carbon footprint.
With rising awareness for the need to recycle and reuse composite materials, innovators are developing unprecedented ways to repurpose material waste and push ahead with the green revolution.
Enter ‘upcycling’: The latest trend behind sustainability breakthroughs that has taken the industry by storm and is set to be the new face of evolving waste management systems in the circular economy.
So what is upcycling and how does it differ from recycling?
Upcycling can be popularly understood as creative reuse. It is the process of transforming by-products and waste materials from items that are otherwise useless or unwanted and transforming them into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.
Recycling on the one hand, uses discarded consumer materials, largely plastic, paper, metal and glass packaging and breaks them down before repurposing the composites to create a new product that is often of a lesser quality to the original material use.
Upcycling on the other hand, does not break down the materials but alternatively refashions them, using the same materials at the start of the process to make the new product. The upcycled item’s goal is to be of better, or at least equal, quality than the original product sent to waste.
The critical result is that this waste by-product is given a new life as something useful or creative and, in many cases, uniquely innovative.
The main thing that seperates upcycling from traditional recycling, is that the reused item must be better than it’s original form. In this way it has captured the hearts and minds of sustainability innovators. (See an example of an upcycle vs. recycle infographic from upcycling experts @Hipcycle, right).
Case study: Upcycling and PET
While recycling programs are gaining traction in popularity, the average PET bottle used by consumers will still, most likely, end up sitting inert in a landfill due to inefficient or misunderstood recycling practices.
To address this problem, innovative plastic companies have been exploring a range of solutions to close this gap in the circular economy and ensure that plastic waste is managed from product conception to reuse.
These post-consumer PET plastic bottles are now being looked at as a mine of untapped potential raw materials for use in a unique chemical upcycling process pioneered by forward-thinking research teams from companies such as SABIC Innovative Plastics @.
SABIC’s unqiue solution focuses on reusing post-consumer PET in resin.
Conventional PBT resins have traditionally been formed through a chemical process that use non-renewable crude oil or natural gas as a raw material whereas SABIC’s ‘iQ resins’ uses proprietary chemistry that produces these high-quality PBT resins while also using post-consumer PET as its main source, reducing the hydrocarbon-based fuels needed in the mix.
The process regenerates and upgrades the PET waste material saving it from landfill and giving it an efficient and practical usabilty. Plus, the iQ resin manufacturing process is more energy efficient from cradle-to-gate, consuming a staggering 55-75% less fossil fuel than other engineering thermoplastics across the market, it also reduces CO2 emissions by a comparable amount.
In this way, SABIC’s innovative upcycled resins are a true ‘drop-in solution’ for traditionally manufactured composites, blends and alloys containing PBT.
The resins can extend and transform the life of a standard PET plastic bottle by an impressive 20 years, by converting the composites into high-performance products for automotive, electronics, furniture or fiber OEMs. Finished products made from iQ resins may contain up to 65% post-consumer PET waste, with zero impact on mechanical or aesthetic performance.
The importance of upcycling chemicals is emphasised by the SABIC Innovative Plastics team;
“The world around us is changing. Raw materials and energy are in shorter supply than ever, while solid waste is becoming a problem. It isnt enough anymore for engineering resins to deliver high mechanical, aesthetic and processing performance. They must also deliver environmentally sustainable solutions.”
As a wider concept, upcycling has been around for generations. Thrifty families with few economic or material resources would reuse items, periods of hardship such as wartime rationing brought to life this spirit of maximising the use of everyday objects.
Popular examples of household, everyday upcycling include reusing grain or coffee sacks to make accessories or dresses, tires to make buckets, bottle glass to make artisan jewelry or old crockery to make lighting solutions (see photos).
The possibilities are limited only to the imagination.
As a result of the diversity in applications for upcycling, the upcycling movement has taken off across art, architecture and aesthetic based movements causing an increased demand from consumers for sustainable brands that spearhead upcycled materials in their value-chains.
Upcycling has huge potential to create a positive impact on the environment and the way we think about objects otherwise destined for landfill, looking at waste instead as the building-blocks of the something altogether new and useful.
The world is changing and with it markets demands are evolving to increasingly demand new models of sustainability in business practices, innovators such as SABIC Innovative Plastics and ‘everyday’ household and aesthetic upcyclers are great examples of how upcycling is transforming traditional markets to meet these changing material lifeycles.
For more on SABIC’s work in this area, read their excellent report.
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