I know, I'm about seven years late to the party here, but I'm just now reading Cradle to Cradle. As I made my way through the book, a terrible realization slowly dawned on me, and this one line from The Princess Bride has been running through my head since then:
I am the Vizzini in this scenario, and I am not alone.
Just like with "green," "natural," and "sustainability," the concept of upcycling has been misused and watered down since William McDonough and Michael Braungart coined it in their 2002 book. The term was meant to describe a truly closed system where products are made not to be consumed but used and then either become something else or be easily broken down into useful materials. Think unraveling an ugly thrift store sweater and knitting it into something new or packing material that becomes a TV stand rather than trash when it arrives at its destination.
Instead, it's now often used interchangeably with recycling or reusing. While I think there is definitely an environmental benefit to using salvaged or recycled rather than virgin materials, when you do that you're not necessarily upcycling.
Real upcycling is an elegant design concept that has a much deeper meaning. It takes into account not only sourcing materials but the finished product's entire lifecycle. It's taking your materials and turning them into something of high quality and of greater value than what you started with. When we use it to mean something else, it waters down the original meaning.
I think that part of the reason it's misused is that it's sort of a tricky concept. For example, if I take a vintage pillowcase or salvaged linens and turn them into a tote bag or a skirt, is that upcycling? Or is that reusing? I'm struggling with the answer to this question.
What about plastic bottles turned into light fixtures? It's awesome that folks are finding crafty uses for things that would have gone straight to the landfill, I'm just not sure it's always upcycling. What happens to that chandelier when the home owner decides it's time for some new decor? And what happened to the parts that had to be cut off of the bottle to construct the fixture?
Please don't think that I'm knocking reuse and recycling here at all. In real life, we're surrounded by products that weren't designed with the Cradle to Cradle concept in mind. Finding crafty ways to reuse them is better than sending them off to the landfill. I certainly don't plan to stop hunting down vintage linens and salvaged buttons, and I still applaud crafty reuse.
The thing I do want to stop doing is using upcycling to mean something that it doesn't.
So what do you guys think? Am I just getting bogged down in semantics, or have you noticed folks calling things upcycling where it doesn't really apply?