Cash for Trash: Innovative Companies Profitably Upcycle, Recycle and Reduce Waste

By Vreni Hommes

Turning worm poop into fertilizer was TerraCycle’s first big idea. Then they transformed discarded drink containers into consumer bling, which made them a world-recognized leader in this hot, new trend of “upcycling.” Upcycling is the conversion of waste destined for landfills into new products of better quality or a higher environmental value. TerraCycle upcycles unwanted trash into messenger bags, notebooks, and the list goes on.

“Buy low, sell high” is the underlying business model for upcycling companies such as TerraCycle. They buy raw source materials (waste) at low cost and charge premium prices for their fashionable, environmentally-friendly upcycled products. But that’s not all. The upcycling companies’ business partners also benefit because their scrap waste is being reused. Instead of having to pay someone to haul their waste away, someone is actually paying for it and taking it off their hands.

The good news for the environment is that as more trash is upcycled, less trash is ending up in landfills. It also lowers the consumption of raw materials, air pollution from waste incineration, and water pollution from leaking into landfills.

The upcycling trend is doing something more . . . it is raising people’s awareness about the growing trash problem and motivating them to change their behavior. For example, Recyclebank does this by educating and rewarding their customers for recycling. Terracycle does this by setting up collection centers to make it easier for communities and schools to recycle.

Upcycling is a growing industry

TerraCycle and Recyclebank aren’t the only companies coming up with innovative – and profitable – ideas for making stylish, environmentally-friendly products out of trash. Learn more about them and other cutting-edge upcycling companies below.

  • TerraCycle, Inc. is a worldwide leader in the collection and reuse of consumer packaging and products.
  • Recyclebank rewards people for taking everyday green actions with discounts and deals from local and national businesses.
  • Playback Clothing transforms trash like plastic bottles and clothing scraps into great looking eco-clothing.
  • Hipcycle offers upcycled products that are as desirable, attractive and durable as traditional equivalent products.
  • IceStone makes high design surfaces from recycled glass instead of quarried stone.
  • Preserve makes attractive toothbrushes and kitchenware from recycled plastic like yogurt containers.

Criticism of upcycling

Critics argue that upcycling and recycling only postpones the inevitable – the waste will still eventually end up in landfills. It is better to reduce waste to begin with to than upcycle waste after it is generated. “Zero Waste” advocates want products that are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and reused. They want people to change their behavior and businesses to change their practices so that less waste is created and any discarded material is used as a resource for others.

What about “Zero Waste?”

Although it remains challenging to get consumers reduce their waste and recycle, many businesses are already discovering there is money to be made with zero waste programs. According to GreenBiz, by finding ways to reduce its waste, Wal-Mart has cut the cost to haul waste to landfills in California by over 80 percent. General Motors has earned $2.5 billion from recycling over the past four years. Kraft has achieved zero waste at 36 food plants around the world and, at some locations, use manufacturing byproducts to create energy. Companies in almost any industry and of every size are seeing significant savings by reducing, reusing, or recycling materials. Besides being environmentally friendly, zero waste initiatives save money by cutting out waste and streamlining production.

Is one waste strategy better than another?

It seems that almost any waste strategy – upcycling, recycling, reusing, or reducing materials – can lead to significant savings and even boost revenues. This is clearly good for business. When it comes to the environment, however, there is a bit of a debate about which waste strategy is best. As mentioned earlier, zero waste advocates argue that any upcycled or recycled waste still eventually ends up in landfills. Thus, it is better to not create the waste to begin with.

Yet even if upcycled products do eventually end up in landfills, upcycling companies like Terracycle and Recyclebank are succeeding in raising people’s awareness of the waste problem and motivating them to change their behavior and recycle more. Plus, the new upcycling market is incenting companies to develop new environmentally-friendly products and services. While upcycling isn’t as green as zero waste, it is changing how we view and what we do with trash.

What do you think?

  • Is zero waste the only environmentally responsible waste strategy?
    Or is upcycling a good development for the environment too?
  • Is the solution to the waste problem going to come from corporate America and zero waste programs?
    Or does a lasting solution require consumers to change their behavior with regard to trash?

 

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