Circular Thinking: How Upcycling is Changing Manufacturing for the Better

Native fruit trees grown by DYCLE in soil made of composted diapers (image courtesy of DYCLE)

Native fruit trees grown by DYCLE in soil made of composted diapers (image courtesy of DYCLE)

Have you ever looked at a piece of the clothing you’re wearing and wondered what happened to the rest of the fabric that it was cut from? Or have you thought about how large industrial equipment disposed of when it is no longer useful? What about the fruit and vegetables that didn’t make it to grocery stores because they’re bruised or grew into an unusual shape? All of these are examples of products and materials that traditionally were sent to landfills, but, thanks to new upcycling processes, are now able to be saved and repurposed. Find out how Vastly is on the cutting edge of circular economy manufacturing in the paper industry and how other companies like Vastly are upcycling for sustainability.

Circular Economies

The wide majority of current production processes assume a model where products and resources are used and eventually discarded as waste; where upcycling is valued as a better alternative to recycling. A circular economy is a different model for manufacturing - one that converts the linear path of manufacturing and consumption (take, make, dispose) to a restorative, regenerative one. One of the principles of a circular economy is designing negative externalities like waste or pollution out of the system.

In other words, circular economies intentionally improve the production and consumption processes to reveal and remove damage to humans, land, water, plants, and animals. This helps reduce noise pollution, release of toxic substances, and climate change. [SOURCE] In a circular economy, products are designed to maximize long-term advantages of production and use of materials, reducing the need for virgin materials and finding new markets for byproducts of the production process. [SOURCE]

In manufacturing terms, this is considered making use of “repurposed waste streams,” or turning one waste into a different product of its own value rather than sending it to a landfill. It’s in the interest of the manufacturer to reduce waste for economic and environmental reasons. And awareness of waste generated by manufacturing processes has led to a trend in consumer awareness and support of companies that reduce waste. Circular economies design products and materials for their highest utility and value throughout manufacturing, primary use, and beyond. In doing this, they design out waste from the production and consumption process.

Trash to Treasure

What is Upcycling & Why is it Better Than Recycling?

Another way of thinking about a circular economy is to think of “upcycling,” or converting wasted or unused material into something new and more valuable than the original material. These are sometimes called “recovered materials”, an example of which is using steel scrap leftover from car manufacturing to make steel beams for use in building construction. Upcycling is turning waste into a new, useful product.

When Reiner Pilz coined the term “upcycling” in the 1990s, he envisioned something that was better than recycling, giving products more value rather than less. [SOURCE] You could even consider recycling the opposite of upcycling - it’s often “downcycling” into a product of lesser value. For example, recycled plastic is often less strong and durable than the original plastic components.

Customers and consumers are essential to the idea of upcycling in a circular economy since products and materials often have to be contributed or returned to the supply chain in order to continue the cycle. A familiar example of small-scale upcycling might be turning items in your home that you find useful for something other than for what it was created. If you’ve ever turned a well-worn t-shirt into a rag to use around the house or a tire into a swing for kids, then you’ve participated in a small way in the circular economy. Composting is another simple example of upcycling; you can convert discarded fruits and vegetables into nutritious fertilizer for your home garden.

Interface carpet is made using upcycled nylon fishnet collected from beaches in the Philippines (image courtesy of Interface)

Interface carpet is made using upcycled nylon fishnet collected from beaches in the Philippines (image courtesy of Interface)

What’s the Impact of Upcycling in America?

Out of the 5,589 largest public companies in America, a combined 342,493,476 metric tons of waste was sent to U.S. landfills in 2014. This amount is only from industrial production and doesn’t include any of the smaller companies and businesses or the trash generated by American consumers in the same time! [SOURCE]

Sending waste to a landfill or incinerating it (burning it) generates pollution, whether from the transportation required to get the materials or trash to a landfill or the emissions directly released into the air in the incineration process. Even in the landfill, trash and waste produces methane and carbon dioxide as it breaks down, which escapes into the air. The polluted air has a negative effect on nearby agricultural output, forest growth, and an increase in acid rain. [SOURCE]

Upcycling, like recycling, saves much of the waste that would be sent to the landfill and uses it for another purpose. But unlike recycling, a repurposed waste stream converts one “waste” into a more valuable product. This saves land that would be used for landfills and keeps potential pollutants from causing harm to the environment.

The #1 Upcycled Product in America

Did you know that most of our road surfaces are made from recycled materials? In fact, since 1993, asphalt has been considered by the EPA and the Federal Highway Association to be the nation’s number one most recycled product. [SOURCE] In 2013, approximately 4,160,000 scrap tires were used to make asphalt paving material for roadways. In 2015, roughly 1,900,000 tons of used asphalt roofing shingles were also upcycled into paving mixes for road-building. [SOURCE] While the most common recycled components in asphalt are roof shingles and existing roadway, recycled asphalt often contains other materials like blast furnace slags, foundry sand, glass, and even pig manure!

Papermaking Challenge

What To Do With the Manufacturing Leftovers

In the first part of the 20th century, the spent chemicals used to make paper (referred to in the industry as black liquor*) were distributed directly into water supplies, creating significant environmental harm and creating a reputation for papermaking as being a dirty, polluting business. Over time, technological improvements and changes in the manufacturing process for most paper mills have essentially made a closed loop process, reducing the amount of waste that remains from the pulping process.

Now, in most paper manufacturing facilities, chemicals are reused as much as possible. Chemical recovery for black liquor involves concentrating the liquor, burning any organic compounds, reducing inorganic compounds, and recycling the recovered pulping chemicals. Any small amounts of remaining chemical waste and short, unusable fibers that can no longer be reused in the papermaking process are typically sent to landfills. [SOURCE]

This closed-loop process demonstrates a lot of progress in efficiency and reduction of environmental harm in the papermaking process, but how can we go a step farther to protect our planet and reduce waste? How can future processes build on past efforts to reduce, reuse, and upcycle waste?

Vastly is trying to change the way we make paper, starting with sustainable raw materials, and ending with two products: not only the intended paper materials, but also an environmentally-friendly coproduct that can be used as an earth-safe fertilizer rather than sent to a landfill. This allows Vastly to largely bypass the need for a landfill altogether, converting the papermaking coproducts into a farm-friendly fertilizer. Like other companies and consumers participating in the circular economy, Vastly is proving that there are efficient, smart, environmentally-friendly ways to manufacture the goods we consume on a daily basis.

*Black liquor is the chemical cocktail that is leftover from the Kraft pulping process (which is the chemical pulping process widely used in the U.S. and accounts for 80% of pulp production worldwide). [SOURCE] Black liquor is concentrated through water evaporation and then burned in a furnace, destroying organic constituents. The result of the burning process is a molten smelt mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium sulfide. Through further processing, the solution is able to be recycled and used again for pulping.

How is Vastly Upcycling?

If you’ve read about the history of papermaking, you know that 90% of today’s paper products are derived from either virgin wood pulp or recycled paper pulp originally made from wood. [SOURCE] Vastly is taking a different approach, removed from the typical linear path of manufacturing. Instead of using virgin trees as raw materials, Vastly converts unutilized, post-harvest wheat straw, that would otherwise be left to waste on fields, into paper products like paper towels, napkins, and dinnerware. In this upcycling system, fertilizer is a natural coproduct of manufacturing, turning the production process into a virtuous cycle that gives back to the earth.

Vastly, like other companies participating in a circular economy model, looks for by-product or coproduct synergy - industrial symbiosis. Both of these terms describe the way a “waste product” of one process can become a raw material for another. For Vastly, the symbiotic relationship between paper products and fertilizer represents this coproduct symmetry. Nutrient-rich fertilizer is a natural coproduct of the wheat straw pulping process, which goes back to farmers in order to enrich their fields for future crops.

What Are Some Other Companies Participating in the Circular Economy?

Bridgestone

Helping car-drivers repurpose their tires into new materials

Bridgestone started a Tires 4ward program in 2012, collecting more than 10 million used tires of all brands, which they upcycle into floor mats, paving materials, and mulch. The company’s concept is that for each new tire they create for use on a vehicle, they repurpose an old, used tire for another use. This program encourages customers to participate in the repurposing of their own tires, which they can bring to any Bridgestone shop rather than sending to landfills. In addition to making use of tires that are given by customers, Bridgestone collects tires that are found discarded on public lands,  in rivers, and in lakes at clean-up events.

Pampers and DYCLE

Reclaiming used diapers for new uses as school desks, pet litter, and even synthetic soil

Disposable diapers are being actively researched for their ability to be upcycled into other products after use. Examples of potential recycled materials made from disposable diapers include plastic wipes containers, pet litter, insulation material, and even upholstery filling. [SOURCE] Companies like Procter & Gamble (maker of Pampers) are researching the ability to eventually recycle used diapers into street benches, school desks, or bottle tops. DYCLE, a German company, is committed to converting compostable diaper inserts into black soil, which is a nutritious synthetic soil that can grow fruit and nut trees. Fruit harvested from this synthetic soil could go on to become baby food, juice, or more.

POET-DSM

Fueling the country with post-harvest corn waste.

POET and DSM have joined forces to create a new type of cellulosic bio-ethanol fuel that uses industrial-level corn crop waste (cobs, leaves, stalks, and husks) to make 20 million gallons of new fuel each year. Because the average large-scale farm produces roughly a ton of such waste per acre of field each year, this waste is now an incentive for the farmer to make some extra money from the harvest while providing a valuable new product made from waste. [SOURCE]

Rubies in the Rubble relishes (image courtesy of Rubies in the Rubble)

Rubies in the Rubble relishes (image courtesy of Rubies in the Rubble)

Rubies in the Rubble

COOKING LANDFILL-BOUND PRODUCE INTO DELICIOUS CONDIMENTS

Rubies in the Rubble | This London-based company works to solving the global problem of food waste, acknowledging that 3/4 of all produce never reaches plates. Although edible, this portion is often discarded due to aesthetic imperfections, over-forecasted demand, and distribution inefficiency. Rubies and Rubble makes tasty condiments like Spicy Tomato relish and Pink Onion & Chilli relish with veggies that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.

Reformation

Using vintage garments and sustainable fabrics to make new clothing for women

In addition to making new garments from upcycled, discarded fabric and sustainable new or recycled materials, Reformation also allows customers to recycle their unused clothing through their Refcycle program. According to Reformation, Americans throw away 68 pounds of clothing per person, per year. [SOURCE] Instead of encouraging this system of waste, Reformation gives customers pre-paid shipping labels to recycle their clothes, giving them the opportunity to participate directly in the the upcycling process. Reformation also created RefScale - a custom measuring tool that Reformation uses to track the impact each of the garments they make have on the environment. Refscale considers the amount of carbon dioxide, water, and waste created in producing each garment, comparing these to industry standards and making the information public to consumers. In addition to an upcycling business model, Reformation has introduced progressive sustainability practices into their office and manufacturing facility to further manage waste and reduce their carbon footprint.

Method

Saving plastics from the ocean to make new soap packaging

Each year, over 267 species around the world are harmed by plastic; eating plastic in the ocean kills over 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 sharks, turtles, dolphins, and whales. [SOURCE] To help tackle this global issue, Method uses discarded ocean plastic from Hawai’i beaches to make new plastic bottles for their Ocean Plastic soaps. By working with beach clean-up crews, Method can reuse plastic debris to make a dent in the 100 million tons of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Interface

Cleaning up beaches in the Philippines and turning fishnet into carpet tiles

Interface recycles nylon fishnet into beautifully designed Net Effect carpet tiles. Their model includes providing a source of income to Philippines villages that help citizens make money to clean up their local beaches. Their efforts remove discarded fishing nets that threaten the livelihood of fishing as well as the double barrier reef off shore.

IceStone countertops made of recycled glass (image courtesy of IceStone)

IceStone countertops made of recycled glass (image courtesy of IceStone)

IceStone

Creating sleek and sustainable countertops from recycled glass.

IceStone creates recycled glass surfaces in a repurposed, early 1900s Brooklyn Navy Yard. Since 2003, IceStone has diverted more than 13 million pounds of glass from landfills, turning them into durable, attractive countertops. The factory uses skylights to save electricity, filters 98% of manufacturing water, and recycles over 90% of waste created in manufacturing.

Repurposed Materials, Inc.

Carrying on the tradition of creative reuse in industrial and agricultural equipment

The Denver-based Repurposed Materials is a  company repurposes discarded products like billboards, football field turf, street sweeping brooms. These industrial items are often able to be reused for a totally different function without spending much time or resources altering the material itself. Often, the reuse is a creative, inexpensive, and even more effective product than an industrial equivalent. The founder, who formerly owned a garbage company, now looks for creative ways to keep garbage out of landfills altogether. Repurposed Materials has turned used billboard ads as agricultural and construction tarps, pond liners, and projection screens. Field turf has been reused in chicken cages as a soft nest for catching eggs. And discarded street-sweeping brushes are easily converted into back scratching posts for horses and even rhinos at the Bronx Zoo. Another unexpected zoo-friendly item? Used fire hoses make great vines for monkeys to play on. Large tires from mining equipment are easily converted into giant, durable water bowls for cattle (stock tanks).

Circular Economies: Better for Us, Better for You, Better for the Planet

Circular economies are beneficial for companies, consumers, and the planet. Imagine a future where manufacturing processes produced the most minimal amount of waste and were able to divert materials from landfills, whether to be reused by the manufacturer or distributed to another consumer as a useable by-product. This is increasingly becoming a reality as companies like Vastly make upcycling processes central to their mission and manufacturing. Vastly is proud to be in the company of other manufacturers seeking creative, practical solutions to pollution and waste.


What are some ways that you upcycle at home or participate in a circular economy when you are purchasing items at the store? What are some other models for upcycling that we didn't include here? Join in the conversation on sustainable manufacturing on our Facebook page