Upcycling not only keeps garbage out of landfills, it also reduces carbon emissions
Dealing with ever-growing garbage mountains is a challenge that India and countries across the world continue to face. However, the need to reduce rubbish has led to some innovative solutions such as upcycling waste. Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming waste materials, by-products and unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality and environmental value, while retaining the characteristics of the original material. This helps promote a circular economy by giving discarded materials a second life, reducing the need for virgin resources. More often than not, it doesn’t require major financial investments and can be achieved through out-of-the-box thinking, smart designing and reorganising production. Besides keeping refuse out of landfills and offsetting demand for virgin materials, upcycling reduces carbon emissions and helps save energy and water.
Upcycled materials could include used clothes, packaging material, e-waste or simple household goods like furniture and furnishings. These materials could also be pre-consumer waste that is generated before the products reach the consumers. Examples include clothing manufacturing, paper and printing industry and the auto-component industry that also generates metal scraps. India has begun embracing upcycling and many firms are coming forward with innovative ideas and business models. For instance, a company in Bengaluru that turns old clothes, plastics, tyre tubes, broken glass, wood pieces and multi-layered plastic packaging into stylish products has successfully upcycled 30 tonnes of trash.
A Mumbai-based firm upcycles post-consumer and post-industrial fabrics like denim. It makes bags and jewellery, having already upcycled around 3,000 pair of jeans and 500 metres of post-industrial waste denim. Another Bengaluru-based outfit makes jewellery from discarded PET bottles. However, this is just the beginning and a lot more can be done to reduce waste and generate employment at the same time through product lifetime extension.
For instance, a Mumbai-based social enterprise recycles textile waste into sustainable materials and products that are handcrafted by women living in slums. The collection of waste provides opportunities to integrate the informal sector into the formal sector with the former becoming a supplier of the material.
However, upcycling is still at a nascent stage, with difficulties in achieving economies of scale. While an average customer may expect an upcycled product to be cheaper than a product made of virgin material, various issues make it challenging to achieve that, which has a direct impact on the prices of these products. The heterogeneous nature of raw material leads to labour-intensive processes. Recycling doesn’t always generate products like those made from virgin materials. Then there are supply chain complexities, and while increased attention to hygiene generates acceptability by consumers, it increases overhead costs.
Starting an upcycling venture also needs technical and managerial guidance along with expert advice for designing and manufacturing. Making such a venture viable would require regular sourcing of waste, including local material streams that can be arranged through tie-ups with second-hand markets and collection centres. Price benchmarking of waste material is also important to enable competitive costing. Further, awareness, supportive eco-systems and industrial symbiosis are extremely crucial to encourage upcycling. To create a market, retail partnership with stores, online availability of products and subsidised participation at exhibitions can be explored. Most importantly though, understanding consumer perception and attitudes towards upcycled products will need to be factored in to garner their buy-in/acceptability. For this, positive attitudes and social expectations around upcycling need to be created through social media campaigns, workshops and events.
The upcycling industry in India needs a major leg-up and policy direction has a very significant role to play in this. Change in Government procurement policies to favour upcycled goods over mass-produced goods made from virgin materials can create a demand. The Government could also commission upcycling projects to help create a positive image. Tax incentives that typically offer benefits for purchasing equipment and machinery could further be designed for the industry. Lastly, in the longer term, manufacturers should consider changes to consumer products and packaging that makes them easier to upcycle at the end-of-life stage.
Upcycling can be an important tool for sustainability in this age of resource scarcity, hence community efforts in channelling waste and creating a market for such products are the need of the hour.
(Shilpi Bakshi is a researcher with TERI and Soumya Kalluri is the founder of upcycling firm Dwij)