Upcycling for the Working World

Online crafting sites are awash with ideas to turn your old sofa into a super smart solar panel or your unused jeans into a chicken coup, but what about commercial recycling? The power of residential upcycling is in the fact that there are many people all over the world frantically chopping, gluing and refashioning waste to keep the same items out of landfill. It is the sheer volume of people making the same thing out of the same used material that produces an impact on the environment we live in, but will this work on a commercial scale? The short answer to that is – no, it won’t. We need to support an alternative for recycling commercial waste.

Commercial waste is of a completely different nature to residential waste, but just as valuable to be recycled and upcycled into something still useful. In some ways, commercial recycling is more important as the volume of waste is much larger. Consider this, you may be able to turn your old cookie cutters into an amazing chandelier, but what about the factory that makes cookie cutters? Chandeliers just aren’t an option for them. Traditional substandard products, over runs, set ups runs, off cuts and left overs are sent to landfill as they are not of a good enough quality to be sold. Sadly you cannot manufacture a product without wastage, it can only be reduced. These products and by products can be totally useable, recyclable or upcyclable and more and more innovative companies are catching on to the value of commercial waste, developing their own lines of commercial upcycling.

If you receive an email from Scott Hamlin the CEO of Looptworks, below it is a call to action. It reads; ‘Did you know that it requires more than 400 gallons of water to make one organic cotton T-shirt? Upcycle.’ That’s exactly what his company Looptworks does. In 2009 Hamlin, along with Gary Peck and Jim Strutts, two veterans of the fashion industry, was inspired by other retailers that were turning to sustainable fashion by recycling industrial waste into new clothes and decided to launch their own company. At that point only outdoor apparel was being manufactured, so they decided to take it one step further.

Looptworks uses what it terms as ‘pre-consumer excess’ as a source for its material, that amounts to the off cuts and waste runs from other items destined for incineration or the dump. This does limit the materials available which in turn limits the items they can make, but the sustainable nature of the accessories, clothing and fashion items they make, coupled with the limited availability makes them more desirable. It also makes them high quality hand made.

“Our goal,” he says, “is to influence consumer awareness and figure out a way to promote this non-mass-produced approach on a large scale.”

Hamlin’s business is doing extremely well, but he is more excited about the 48 million gallons of water Looptwork has saved than success. His business is so well respected that factories and manufacturers are coming to him and discussing what can be done with their excess.

This idea of trash into treasure is so attractive that luxury firms like Hermes now have an upcycling range. Using off cuts from their signature scarves and Birkin bags, Hermes are upcycling them into home furnishings and accessories. Celebrity chef Mario Batali has teamed up with the beauty industry to make soaps and lotions from oils left over from the restaurant industry. It seems all you need it commercially upcycle is the waste – and a little creative thinking.

Tom Szaky who founded TerraCycle in one of those out of the box thinkers. Terracycle is an organization that collects garbage and manufactures them into useable items. Over 1 billion items destined for the garbage sack each month are diverted to Terracycle who have set up facilities to turn drinks bags into back packs and bicycle chains into picture frames. The most amazing thing of all that Szaky has accomplished is that his small scale production has made it on to big box shelves like Target and Home Depot.

Calgary has its own version of TerraCycle, though on a much smaller scale. BluPlanet Recycling collects residential and commercial waste and finds it a new home where it can be recycled or upcycled into something new. They sort the incoming waste, organize it and contact companies who are able to give it a new lease of life, and we need to get behind it to make it a roaring success. Condos and multiple living units do not currently receive a recycling service from the city, so we need to ‘do our bit’ to introduce companies like BluPlanet into our residential and work areas so that commercial recycling becomes commonplace. These large scale efforts will make a huge leap in reducing the carbon footprint of Calgary as a city. And it’s up to us to make it happen.

Some companies look at commercial upcycling to cut costs. Sam Hagerman from Hammer and Hand was a building firm struggling to survive the recent recession.

“I was writing the garbage man a $10,000 check every month, and I realized that could support a living wage and a half,” he says.

Out of necessity Hagerman parked a truck outside his office building and sorted out building waste that could be reused. Moulding, framework, light fixtures, appliances and flooring all went into the truck to finish other contracts. As he and his team got skilled at it, more and more construction rubble was refashioned into new material.

“I realized we could get a beautiful pile of lumber for free, and turn around and add value to it. We saved the jobs of 40 people,” he says. “We got creative by necessity, but we changed our business because it also makes financial sense.”

It would seem that for some commercial recycling is a dream come true, but it isn’t that easy. Hagerman admits the time taken to sort, organize and store the recycled material is huge and if you don’t already have a purpose in mind for them, – if you’re not smart about your recycling it can be massive waste of resources. As with any commercial upcycling production, the limited materials mean you cannot set up a large scale operation for anything as you cannot guarantee supply. You make something with what you got – and that means it has to be handmade all the way.

As Hamlin of Looptworks points out, success is mostly about quality and style, not just green. “The product has to be best-in-class, and it has to be cool, innovative, stylish, fit right–all of those things,” he says. “And at the end of it, it happens to be upcycled. That’s the way it should work. To me, it’s a win-win for business and the environment.”

Commercial upcycling is a great way to divert a lot of waste from our landfill, by doing so we reduce greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming, but it is also important in the role of business’ in a sustainable economy. We need to support these initiatives so that more can develop and create a symbiotic commercial structure. It truly is a win/win situation. As Scott Hamlin says – it’s good for the environment, and we get stylish, guilt free fashion. I’m up for that.









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