It’s a Good Thing: A growing legion of “upcyclers” is turning trash into treasure

...and creating economic opportunities in the process.

Credit: iStock

Up, up and away

…and creating economic opportunities in the process

Recycling, as an exercise in sustainability, has always been fraught. It’s been almost 40 years since the introduction of Canada’s first municipal recycling program, and yet much of what is produced as packaging, consumer or industrial goods still doesn’t get recycled. According to a 2019 study by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada, 87 percent of plastics end up in landfills or are leaked into the environment. And that’s not just a problem for our planet: it also represents almost $8 billion in lost economic opportunity, according to Deloitte.

To recycle is, ultimately, a reductive process—extracting that which has value and leaving the rest as waste. A German engineer by the name of Reiner Pilz created an important distinction within the recycling field when he coined the phrase upcycling. “Recycling, I call it downcycling,” Pilz told SalvoNews in 1994. “They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.”

Back in 1994, Judy Rom was just seven years old, but even then the founder of the website Upcycle That had an interest in taking old objects and making something new. She remembers her mother bringing her to Urban Source, an arts supply shop on Main Street in Vancouver, which she describes as an “iconic” upcycler. “I’d fill up a bag with stuff and work with that. I always loved the unusual, found, reclaimed materials.”

Upcycle That—which Rom launched in 2012 while working for an ad agency in Cape Town, South Africa—is part inspiration board, part e-commerce site and part sales brochure for her consulting business. Clients who have turned to Rom in recent years include rum maker Bacardi, Appleman’s Cider and the World Trade Centre mall in Hong Kong. While she sometimes is the person scouring the globe for materials (beyond those which clients supply), often she acts as project manager—sourcing materials, and people, to get the job done.

For Bacardi, Rom created a series of upcycled liquor cabinets. “They told me a bit about their demographics and who their target market was, and then asked what I would do,” she says. “We did something with a steamer trunk—turning that into a bar—and floating shelves.”

Although the term upcycling may date back two decades, as a business model it’s still finding its feet. “It’s more expensive to upcycle something than it would be to just dispose of it, so there has to be other value for the brands to get them to do it,” says Rom, who graduated from UVic with a BCom in entrepreneurship in 2010. “Corporations don’t just do things out of the goodness of their hearts.” She notes that many companies are producing sustainability reports that don’t gain public traction, so upcycling presents an opportunity to talk about corporate efforts in a more compelling and creative way.

To date, most of her commissions have come unbidden: with her background in digital marketing, she was able to create a website that ranks highly in Google searches. But to make Upcycle That a viable full-time business, Rom—who also works as an account director at Vancouver-based website designer GD Commerce and teaches yoga on the side—acknowledges that she’ll have to move beyond bespoke projects. Currently, she’s in talks with a U.S. company that produces vinyl billboards for stadiums and sporting events.

“They’re looking to have a sustainable, ongoing option for these materials, which don’t have a recycling market,” Rom says. She hopes to take their single-use billboards and create a line of backpacks, bags, yoga mats and wallets.

The products will, by necessity, be more expensive. But unlike eight years ago, Rom says, people show an increasing willingness to pay for upcycled products. “Consumers are really waking up to it and demanding it. They’re voting with their wallets.” 

’Twas the Season

In the wake the holiday season, it’s worth remembering that this is not only the most wonderful time of the year–it’s also the most wasteful. Average household waste generated by Canadian families rises more than 25% over the holidays, according to Gibsons-based nonprofit Zero Waste Canada. Here are some other sobering Xmas stats:

Within 6 months, only 1% of gifts are still in use.

Canadians use 6 million rolls of tape to wrap presents every year.

545,000 tonnes of waste is generated from gift-wrapping and shopping bags each year in Canada.

Source: Zero Waste Canada