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Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.
We talked about the impending EU Demolition Waste Streams directive. "Recycling," he said, "I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling- where old products are given more value, not less." He despairs of the German situation and recalls the supply of a large quantity of reclaimed woodblock from an English supplier for a contract in Nuremberg while just down the road a load of similar blocks was scrapped. In the road outside his premises, was the result of the Germans' demolition waste recycling. It was a pinky looking aggregate with pieces of handmade brick, old tiles and discernible parts of useful old items mixed with crushed concrete. Is this the future for Europe?
The upcycling concept was the title of the German book written by Gunter Pauli in 1997, the free translation of Upsizing (the opposite of Downsizing) book first published in 1996. The German edition was adapted to the German language and culture by Johannes F. Hartkemeyer, then Director of the Volkshochschule in Osnabruck. The concept was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.
Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling, which is the other half of the recycling process. Downcycling involves converting materials and products into new materials of lesser quality. Most recycling involves converting or extracting useful materials from a product and creating a different product or material.
For example, during the recycling process of plastics other than those used to create bottles, many different types of plastics are mixed, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid is used in the manufacturing of plastic lumber applications. However, unlike the engineered polymer ABS which hold properties of several plastics well, recycled plastics suffer phase-separation that causes structural weakness in the final product.
In developing countries, where new raw materials are often expensive, upcycling is commonly practiced, largely due to impoverished conditions.
Upcycling has seen an increase in use due to its current marketability and the lowered cost of reused materials. Inhabitat, a blog devoted to sustainability and design, holds an annual upcycling design competition with entries coming from around the globe.
Upcycling has shown significant growth across the United States. For example, the number of products on Etsy tagged with the word "upcycled" increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later—an increase of 275%. As of April 2013[update], that number stood at 263,685, an additional increase of 879%.
The tradition of reusing found objects (objet trouvé) in mainstream art came of age sporadically through the 20th century, although it has long been a means of production in folk art. The Amish quilt, for example, came about through reapplication of salvaged fabric. Simon Rodia's Watts Tower (1921-1954) in Los Angeles exemplifies upcycling of scrap metal, pottery and broken glass on a grand scale; it consists of 17 structures, the tallest reaching over 30 meters into the Watts skyline.
Intellectually, upcycling bears some resemblance to the ready-made art of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists. Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel" (1913), a front wheel and fork attached to a common stool, is among the earliest of these works, while "Fountain" (1917), a common urinal purchased at a hardware store, is arguably his best-known work. Pablo Picasso's "Bull's Head" (1942), a sculpture made from a discarded bicycle saddle and handlebars, is the Spanish painter's sly nod to the Dadists.
Throughout the mid-century the artist Joseph Cornell fabricated collages and boxed assemblage works from old books, found objects and ephemera. Robert Rauschenberg collected trash and disused objects, first in Morocco and later on the streets of New York, to incorporate into his art works.
The idea of consciously raising the inherent value of recycled objects as a political statement, however, rather than presenting recycled objects as a reflection or outcome from the means of production, is largely a late 20th century concept. Romuald Hazoumé, an artist from the West African Republic of Bénin, was heralded in 2007 for his use of discarded plastic gasoline and fuel canisters to resemble traditional African masks at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. Hazoumé has said of these works, "I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day."
Jeff Wassmann, an American artist who has lived in Australia for the past 25 years, uses items found on beaches and junk stores in his travels to create the early Modern works of a fictional German relative, Johann Dieter Wassmann (1841-1898). In "Vorwarts (Go Forward)" (pictured), Wassmann uses four simple objects to depict a vision of modern man on the precarious eave of the 20th century: an early optometry chart as background, a clock spring as eye, a 19th-century Chinese bone opium spoon from the Australian gold fields as nose and an upper set of dentures found on an Australian beach as mouth. Wassmann is unusual among artists in that he does not sell his work, rather they are presented as gifts; by not allowing these works to re-enter the consumer cycle, he averts the commodification of his end product.
Max Zorn is a Dutch tape artist who creates artwork from ordinary brown packaging tape and hangs pieces on street lamps as a new form of street art at night. By adding and subtracting layers of tape on acrylic glass with a surgical scalpel, the artwork can only be visible when light is placed behind it, mimicking the effects similar to stained glass window methods. His technique with pioneering upcycling work with street art has been featured at Frei-Cycle 2013, the first design fair for recycling and upcycling in Freiburg, Germany.
A prominent example is the Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura in Paraguay. The instruments of the orchestra are made from materials taken from the landfill that Cateura is built around. (See the YouTube video of The Landfill Orchestra)
Many industrial processes, like plastic and electronic fabrication, rely on the consumption of finite resources. Furthermore the created waste may have an environmental impact and can affect human health. Within this context, upcycling describes the use of available and future technologies to reduce waste and resource consumption by creating a product with a higher value from waste or byproduct streams.
In consumer electronics, the process of re-manufacturing or refurbishment of second-hand products can be seen as upcycling because of the reduced energy and material consumption in contrast to new manufacturing. The re-manufactured product has a higher value than disposing or downcycling it.
The use of Brewer's spent grain, a waste product of brewing processes, as a substrate in biogas processes eliminates the need for disposal and can generate significant profit to the overall brewing process. Depending on the substrate's price, a profit of approximately 20% of the operational costs is possible. In this process, the biogas plant acts as an “upcycler”.
The worldwide plastic production was 280 million tons in 2011 and production levels are growing every year. It’s haphazard disposal causes severe environmental damage such as the creation of the Great Pacific garbage patch. In order to solve this problem, the employment of modern technologies and processes to reuse the waste plastic as a cheap substrate is under research. The goal is to bring this material from the waste stream back into the mainstream by developing processes which will create an economic demand for them.
One approach in the field involves the conversion of waste plastics (like LDPE, PET, and HDPE) into paramagnetic, conducting microspheres  or into carbon nanomaterials by applying high temperatures and chemical vapor deposition.
On a molecular level, the treatment of polymers like polypropylene or thermoplastics with electron beams (doses around 150 kGy) can increase the material properties like bending strength and elasticity and provides an eco-friendly and sustainable way to upcycle them.
PET could be converted into the biodegradable PHA by using a combination of temperature and microbial treatment. First it gets pyrolized at 450 °C and the resulting TA is used as a substrate for microorganisms, which convert it finally into PHA. Similar to the aforementioned approach is the combination of nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes with powdered orange peel as a composite material. This might be used to remove synthetic dyes from waste water.