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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5 responses

  1. Seems to me you can’t change the system overnight, and any move towards Better, such as supporting upcycling, should be commended.  However, we also keep our eyes on the big picture of zero waste – and the generation of less stuff overall.  But it’s a tricky balance.  For example, my friends who just started ReFleece – making recyclable Kindle/iPad covers out of recycled Patagonia jackets – are very conscious of the fact that their success in the upcycling biz is, at least for now, dependent upon people buying lots of brand new electronics which need to be covered.  But, they figure they have to start somewhere, and designing ancillary products for extremely popular products is a way to get known quickly (and own your own business and make a living and support your family…).

    1. Thanks, Kathy.  Yes, ReFleece is working with Patagonia to create new products from old fleece jackets that would otherwise be re-melted and re-spun at high temperatures, and to do it domestically, which we hope will reduce the carbon footprint by reducing shipping.  Yet at the same time, we are aware that none of us really NEED as much stuff as our economy/society produces!  We worked hard to design our cases so that they can, in turn, be thrown in the recycling bin when the user (inevitably) needs to upgrade his/her iPad/Kindle/laptop. So as usual, reduce first, re-use (or up-cycle) second, and recycle third.

  2. It seems to me that upcycling is an important component of the path to zero waste. This would be the ‘refurbishing’ aspect. And, as you say, it’s effective for raising awareness. So my answer to your first two questions would be, “Go upcycling!”

  3. While both approaches extend the usability of products, upcycling reveals the design potential otherwise lost in landfills.  It’s important for consumers to see the aesthetic possibilities upcycling can unlock, as society’s attitude towards waste tends to be one of disgust.  Many of the manufacturers listed above, including my company, IceStone, create products that are desired first for their style and function, and secondly for their use of recycled content.  The more examples of beauty we can find in our waste, the better.

  4. Nice article, Vreni.  There’s a role for upcycling of course, just as there’s a role for encouraging consumers to make greener purchases as in green marketing. However, the biggest contribution that can be made is to do what we can to discourage waste in the first place through lifestyle changes — living in smaller places, shifting culture away from consumerism, in essence  — “waste prevention” versus  “waste management.”

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