Upcycling: Save the planet for future generations

Everyone is familiar with recycling, but upcycling can save the planet and be a lot of fun! Are you Upcycling?

Everyone – consumers, manufacturers, even government leaders – are interested in a cleaner, healthier world. Upcycling is an approach that can help accomplish this. The goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products; thus, reducing energy usage, air and water pollution, and even greenhouse gas emissions. 

Carbon is the most important item on the planet and if we can create products with more than one life or a continuous cycle of lives we help extend… and ultimately replenish the amount of carbon on our planet.  Upcycling is an approach that can help accomplish this. Originally written about by German author Gunter Pauli in 1997, the concept of upcycling was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle” and their follow-up book in 2013 “The Upcycle”. 

Why do it? Here is what I tell my granddaughter Crosby:

  1. First and foremost, it is important. Upcycling will reduce our carbon footprint and have a positive effect on climate change. Recycling is great but it requires energy and resources to collect, sort and process unwanted items and waste. 
  2. It saves money.  Upcycling is an even greener way of recycling – you find a new purpose for your unwanted items before you throw them away or recycle.  It’s all about taking disposable things and creating something useful from them.  Usually the only energy being used is your own and it can save you money too.  In many cases the higher initial investment for companies to go green is paid back after several years and over time is actually more profitable. 
  3. It is fun.  Humans thrive on creativity.  What better outlet to test, develop and use our creativity than re-purposing items that are past their useful life.  Goodbye old skis, hello new Adirondack chair.
  4. But most important… it is important to the future of our planet.

So, how do we learn upcycling techniques?  A simple Internet search on “how to upcycle” – brings up 6,220,000 results. Other resources easily found on the Internet include:  Amazon.com with 58 books on the subject including “Cradle to Cradle” and “The Upcycle”.  A Google Search for news and articles provides 1,400,000 answers.  Three sites that I enjoyed exploring were HipCycle.com, UpcycleThat.com and GreenBiz.com. And… if you’re looking to purchase upcycled products another simple Internet search returns about 1,130,000 results, two interesting sites are Etsy.com and Terracycle.com

Michigan State University Extension partner Northern Lakes Economic Alliance works with both communities and entrepreneurs with the mission of creating and retaining jobs.  Sustainability is entering the conversation more and more as people are becoming increasingly interested in longer term impacts.  Up-cycling can be an opportunity for businesses, communities and consumers.  In fact, a simple internet search will uncover ideas and products currently on the market and being implemented.  Can we do more?  Absolutely! But, there are many great examples of upcycling in every sector happening right now.

To paraphrase “The Upcycle” … as strongly as we’ve shown that upcycling can be economically fruitful, delightfully effective and actually fun… it really boils down to the most important issue…fairness.  It is simply not fair to future generations to leave this bountiful world depleted.

Michigan State University Extension has had a unique partnership relationship with the regional economic development organization Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) for more than 20 years. Recognizing the strength of combining resources, this partnership focuses on economic development, entrepreneurship growth and community infrastructure throughout a four-county region in the northwest Lower Peninsula, specifically Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. As a result, the NLEA utilizes resources offered through MSU Extension as it provides leadership to state-wide programs sponsored by MSU Extension.

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