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September-October 2010

“Upcycling” turns garbage into useful products. But is it really green?

Jenn HardyWebsite

TerraCycle products made from garbage (from left): backpack made from Capri Sun packets; messenger bag made from Oreo wrappers; tote made from potato chip bags.

TerraCycle products made from garbage (from left): backpack made from Capri Sun packets; messenger bag made from Oreo wrappers; tote made from potato chip bags.

The Claim

Supporters of “upcycling”— turning garbage into funky purses, photo frames, jewelry, and more—say it’s a great way to minimize what’s going into our mountainous landfills. But just how truly green is this practice?

The Investigation

One company that’s been making waves in the world of upcycling is TerraCycle. Partenered with such big businesses as Kraft, TerraCycle proudly embraces the “eco-capitalism” label.

Currently, it mostly turns unrecyclable drink pouches into backpacks, tote bags, and pencil cases. Since there’s nothing else that can be done with this silver heavy-duty packaging, TerraCycle’s brightly coloured upcycled products are “turning a negative into a positive,” says company spokesperson Brian Young. TerraCycle also donates two cents for every pouch it collects to the charity or school of your choice.

It’s all very warm and fuzzy, so it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger problem: why are we creating so much garbage in the first place?

Then there’s upcycling’s carbon footprint when it’s scaled up. TerraCycle, based in New Jersey, collects juice pouches from across North America and ships them to a variety of manufacturing centres in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and across Asia. The finished products are then shipped back across the continent to big-box retailers.

While TerraCycle does ship by train when possible as part of its plan to minimize its environmental impact, all this continent-crossing leaves the same type of hefty carbon footprint typically associated with any large-scale manufacturer.

To deal with this downside, upcycling should be the purview of local projects, says Jesse Lemieux, a sustainability expert and founder of Pacific Permaculture. He believes that people need to be taught how to deal with the waste in their immediate surroundings, rather than having large companies take care of it for them.

“I appreciate that people are coming up with creative solutions to garbage,” he adds. “There’s more and more of a need for this. But the whole system has to change. Unless we address that, all of this is just a Band-Aid.”

The Verdict

We agree with Lemieux. Upcycling is a symptom, not a cure. While there’s no doubt TerraCycle and other upcyclers are diverting trash from landfills, our real focus—as individuals and as voters— should be less on how to prettify our garbage and more on how to stop creating it. Of the three Rs, “reduce” remains the most important.

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