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Upcycling, waste reduction, and everything in between

Whenever a new sustainability claim emerges it understandably becomes trendy. Consumers and brands alike are attracted to these claims because they see potential for a new way to solve environmental problems. ‘Upcycled’ is no different. Could it be a solution for the climate or waste crisis?

Like so many sustainability topics, we don’t need new shiny technology or fancy new processes but rather we must get back to basics. In this article, we’ll explore some of those basics, attempt to define new key terms, and discuss pressing questions, including:

• What is upcycling?

• How can we identify low-waste materials?

So, what is upcycling?

Upcycling is defined as the process of taking what would be waste and turning it into something better than it was before.

How does upcycling differ from recycling?

Technically, recycling is the process of breaking down the would-be waste materials so that they can be made into new materials. If that new material is of lower value than the would be waste, it may be called downcycling. If you make a higher value product than the original material, it could be considered upcycling. Upcycling is essentially a subcategory of recycling, specifically related to improving the value of the material once the material enters the ‘waste stream'.

Recycling vs. Downcycling vs. Upcycling

Making an upcycled claim

There are two important paradigms to consider when seeking or making an upcycled claim. These questions are largely left unanswered by multi-stakeholder groups who are attempting to create a definition of upcycling for use in consumer packaged goods. The questions represent ambiguity of how the term ‘upcycled’ should be used.

1. How is the value of the new product quantified?

Since upcycling is defined as recycling a waste stream into a higher value output, you must consider if the product you are making is truly of higher value. For example, if you make leggings out of plastic bottles, is that defined as upcycling because the leggings cost $50 and plastic water bottles cost $2? Or, is it considered downcycling because you used 40 recycled bottles, originally worth $80, to make $50 leggings?

2. How is a waste stream identified?

In publishing Defining Upcycled Foods: A Definition for Use Across Industry, Government, and Academia, The Upcycled Food Definition Task Force describes an example of how the identification of the waste stream can change depending on how long it has been ‘upcycled’:

Two example products that may fall into this category are whey protein powders and hot dogs. When both of these products initially entered the market, they were arguably upcycling formerly wasted ingredients (whey protein as a byproduct of milk production and hot dogs coming from meat trimmings as a byproduct of butchering). However, in the years since their introduction, both have become mainstream products produced by a wide variety of vendors and coming from different sets of source material, many of which are no longer considered by-products or waste” [1].

The task force proposed methods for defining the waste streams which should be considered for identification of a truly upcycled product.

But upcycling is “the most sustainable” option, right?

Like most sustainability topics and claims, upcycling is not a magic path to sustainability, nor is it all-encompassing of the sustainable ways to manage materials that enter the waste stream.

There are many unnecessary waste streams in our economy, so any effort to turn waste into treasure via upcycling is certainly to be celebrated. For other needs, there may be alternative options, that are more sustainable, such as eliminating waste in the first place. Recall, Principle #1 of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry is Prevention. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created[2].

Waste Management Hierarchy

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses a hierarchy of waste to explain the multitude of stages and opportunities there are to reduce the impact of waste. As indicated by the diagram, it is most preferred to reduce and reuse.

Waste Management Hierarchy

Waste reduction processes

A common waste prevention method is creating processes that produce coproducts. Instead of optimizing a process for one cash product and a waste stream, the process is designed to create two or more products, each of which have distinct value and potential uses.

Coconut and the associated industry serves as an inspiration for coproduct design. The coconut is a natural material which has been utilized and optimized for centuries. It is harvested without cutting down the tree and all parts of the nut can be utilized, such that the:

• shell is used for activated charcoal

• husk is used for ropes, nets, walling, and flooring

• meat is used for coco-flour, coco milk, and coconut oil

• water is used for vinegar, wine, and coconut water

There is minimal to no waste required from the harvesting of the coconut. As you can see, sometimes sustainability can be achieved by going back to basics and eliminating waste at the source.

Best practices for evaluating sustainable product claims

Dive deep and employ critical thinking

Sustainable sourcing is no easy task. As formulators, product developers, marketers, and buyers, you are balancing multiple product features along with performance and price: supply chain stability, material feedstock, labor and human rights practices and assurances, carbon footprint, water footprint, and so much more. For a given project, you may prioritize a certain sustainability benefit, but again, there is no single claim or benefit that is the magic source of ‘sustainability'. The most important step in the process is to think critically about your claims and align them to your company’s or brand’s sustainability goals.

Check out our 5 Guiding Requirements for Sustainability Sourcing web tool for more information.

Sourcing Sustainable Ingredients Tool

Here are examples of ingredients that relate to the topics discussed:

Example of upcycled products (as defined above):

• Raspberry Necta from Full Circle [3]
• SeaBalance Emulsifier from Carbonwave [4]

Example of materials from a waste prevention source: coconut

SustOleo™ TL from Inolex
SustOleo™ MCT from Inolex
Zeastat™ from Inolex

Example of materials from other low-waste supply chains:

LexFeel® Natural from Inolex – read more about the castor supply chain
LexFeel® WOW from Inolex – read more about the castor and sugarcane supply chains

Example of waste prevention materials, where the manufacturing process produces no chemical waste stream:

LexFeel® N350 MB from Inolex
Vellaplex™ MB from Inolex

Where to go from here?

Companies that are seeking to make products from current waste streams are doing noble and necessary work. In other areas, if the root supply chains are doing their best job at waste reduction and prevention, upcycling becomes an unnecessary process. Instead, minimizing waste at the source can be achieved through creating coproducts, optimizing the usability of byproducts, and generally embracing processes of waste reduction and prevention.

Sources

[1] Defining Upcycled Foods: A Definition for Use Across Industry, Government, and Acadamia; 2020

[2] https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/principles/12-principles-of-green-chemistry.html

[3] https://www.upcycledbeauty.com/

[4] https://carbonwave.com/

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