Circular Economies and Circular Markets

Upcycling & Being Diligent When Considering Waste Streams


Co-written by Riyana Razalee & Tinia Pina

In the mid 90’s, the term “upcycling” began to gain traction. In the 2000’s, the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” became popular, further pushing the idea of upcycling. Importantly, it began to infiltrate not just B2B but B2C conversations. Their idea still stands till today, which is that as often as possible, we should use discarded items for the creation of new products. However, before companies consider trying to upcycle all waste, should we first hold ourselves accountable to a few key questions in order to ensure that we’ve been as diligent and ethical as possible when embarking down this route? Where do you start though? Here is what we would advise:

Question #1: What Does Upcycling Waste Really Mean To A Company?
The issue with definitions is that there’s always room for different interpretations. Best case scenario - this can lead towards innovative outcomes. Take the example of TerraCycle. They began as a sustainable fertilizer company, taking worm refuse and putting it in used bottles. Now, by expanding their definition of upcycling, they’ve turned into a licensing company that “offers a range of national, easy-to-use recycling platforms”. For others however, a gap in what upcycling waste means could lead to unethical outcomes. Where one company may view upcycling as moving waste up the supply chain, another company may only consider waste to be truly upcycled if the dollar value or quality has increased. Being specific about what it means to a company serves as a useful North Star. Take a look at the Upcycled Food Association’s definition: Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment. For many waste upcycling companies, this definition is very useful for them.

Question #2: Is There An Offtaker And Has A Stable Relationship Been Established?
If the objective of a company is to create impact at scale, it’s important to ensure that the waste that’s being upcycled is a viable product. Secondly, an offtaker (a company that sees value in and is willing to take the waste that is being upcycled) needs to be identified. Say for example, Company P decides to upcycle plastic waste in the form of phone cases into high quality but affordable furniture for low-income communities. They then sell the final product to a distributor. Sounds fairly straightforward and ethical, right? Almost. Firstly, the price of plastic is intrinsically linked to the notoriously sensitive oil market. When crude oil prices move, companies in the upcycled plastic industry are exposed. The good news is that if Company P has set up long-term offtake agreements to build business confidence, they can then shift the focus away from everyday volatility and instead emphasize to their distributor the long-term benefits of a durable but affordable upcycled product. Working closely with the offtaker and ensuring that they are also aligned with a company’s goals is key.

Question 3: What Are The Potential Downstream Impacts of Upcycled Waste?
For us at Re-Nuble, upcycling waste provides an opportunity to efficiently taking organic nutrients and transform it into commercial-grade, water-soluble nutrients, placing it back into the food system for continuous reuse until a small percentage of its solids have no longer any residual value. However, we are acutely aware of the byproducts of our process and work to ensure that every aspect of our operation is closed-loop and does not affect communities as well as the environment adversely. An example of this is municipal wastewater which is used to fertilize farms and pastures. On one hand, by upcycling the wastewater, we are able to reduce water wastage. Unfortunately, this same wastewater has the risk of including contaminants (such as PFAS) that may be consumed by animals (cattle for dairy or meat) as well as humans. An interesting example is this dairy farm in Maine. The idea of upcycling began when the farm owners decided to upcycle treated sewage as part of a state program in order to assist utilities by reducing waste, while also fertilizing pastures. It was a noble and innovative move and one that many did not predict the side effects of. However, years later, they would find that their cows were producing chemical-tainted milk which likely came from the biosolids that were spread across their fields all those years ago. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection eventually determined that their dairy was laden with PFAs which are known to cause cancer, liver damage, low birth weight, among other problems. The conclusion: Mapping out all of the potential downstream impacts is a practice that all companies should do, not just once, but on a consistent basis.

Rethinking the Upcycling Narrative
So with these three questions in-hand, what can a company take away from all of this? Above all else, there should be an intentional deep dive into what the design of upcycling means. Rethinking the upcycling narrative on a consistent basis is required in order to address any potential loopholes which present itself. In theory, upcycling items back into the system sounds ideal. However, a closer analysis reveals that there are side effects. While all of this sounds relatively easy in theory, we understand that guidance on actionable steps is always useful. As a company, we constantly revisit these three questions through our products and services and so, for any companies that would like to understand how to better incorporate closed-loop and upcycled agriculture technology into their operations, we would be happy to share our thoughts.

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