Back in the early 2000s, my grandmother had developed a special routine for three months. After finishing her morning chores, she would sit in the corner of her room along with threads of every colour, four old bedsheets, three sarees and a few old clothes.
From bags, stationery products, mobile covers to dustbins—check out affordable upcycled products at The Better India shop, here.
She would weave for an hour or two, every day, and told me that all this effort was to give me the warmest and softest quilt that I could use in the winters.
While I was grateful for her love and affection, I failed to identify with the concept of repurposing old bedsheets and sarees.
One day, I gathered the courage and finally asked—”Why can’t you just purchase a quilt from a shop instead of wasting your time?”
To which she replied, “There are enough materials we already have. I don’t see any need to invest in a new quilt.”
The idea of using something old was unappealing to me, but once it was ready, I was blown away by the magnificent velvet ‘razai’ which had different-coloured lace in all four corners.
Stories of clutter finding a new lease of life exist in every Indian household. Interestingly, most of these revolve around our grandparents, as they did not have the luxury of access to disposable products at the tip of their finger.
However, in recent times, the concept of reusing has faded away, thanks to several factors, including affordability and a rise in single use plastic. Things that are of no use to us often end up on landfills adding to the already existing crisis of mounting garbage in India.
Besides industrial waste and the daily waste generated by households, our consumption patterns are also a reason behind the country, generating a whopping 62 million tonnes of waste per year.
Fortunately, the solution to the waste problem lies right in our backyard—upcycling!
So, what exactly is upcycling, and how is it different from recycling?
Cambridge dictionary defines it as, “The activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material.”
To understand upcycling, The Better India spoke to experts in the field.
Shailaja Rangaraan, the co-founder of Rimagined, says:
Upcycling is a creative way of repurposing items that are discarded as waste. This is the best way of rerouting waste away from landfills and promoting a circular economy.
She adds, “Usually, most of the things that are dumped have a lot of life left in them. By upcycling such material, we are ensuring that they don’t end up in landfills. At the same time, by repurposing material instead of buying new products, we are also ensuring that virgin resources that are already scarce are not over consumed.”
Rimagned is a social enterprise that upcycles plastic waste, ceramic waste and e-waste and turns them into jewellery, kitchen items, home décor products and furniture items.
Besides creating a positive environmental impact, Shailaja is also making a difference in the lives of underprivileged women from Bengaluru, who started earning a stable income after she employed them at Rimagined. Read the story here.
Linking upcycling with our consumption patterns, Monisha Narke, Founder and CEO of RUR GreenLife Pvt Ltd defines it as, “Upcycling is a process to bring back resources in the supply chain to reduce consumption of virgin material.”
RUR Greenlife is a Mumbai-based social environment enterprise that makes useful products like benches, photo frame, pen stands, and so on from Tetra Pak cartons.
Whatever the definition, the final goal of upcycling is to curb down waste generation without leaving any carbon footprints.
If the objective of upcycling is the same as recycling, then how is the latter any different from the former?
One fundamental difference between the two is the process. In recycling, the waste product is completely broken down to its base materials, whereas in upcycling the product is altered to make something completely new without breaking it down.
It is the breakdown process that leaves carbon footprints. For instance, plastic can be recycled only when it is shredded into small pieces in a shredder. The shredder machine runs on power, thus increases the carbon footprint.
It takes less energy to upcycle the parent product than creating a new product from scratch. It also elongates the lifespan of the product before it reaches the landfills, says Narke.
Now that the concept of upcycling is clear, from where or how should one start?
It is not rocket science says Narke. “Try and reuse the product in its original form, without adding or processing it. Stay away from using glitter and stickers to make them look attractive. Ensure that the product you upcycle has a longer life for use and eventually can be recycled. For example, glass bottles can be used to store spices, old jeans can be repurposed into a bag, and old furniture can be repainted.”
Interestingly, painting glass bottles is the most common answer that sprung up when I asked my office colleagues and friends about a product that can be upcycled in a hassle-free manner.
Instead of throwing away a glass bottle, wash it and remove the stickers. For those who are not confident about drawing or the designs, paint the bottle in your favourite colour! There are several DIY videos on YouTube that you can refer to. Or learn from this Mangaluru girl who not only upcycled 900 bottles but also inspired others to do the same.
Using old newspapers, cardboard or even X-rays to make a lamp or tin cane to make lantern is another easy way to upcycle. Click here to know the DIY steps.
If you look carefully in your home or workplace, you will never run short of products that can and should be upcycled. Also, for all you know, if you take to upcycling as a hobby, it might eventually turn into a profitable business!
For instance, Amishi Shah from Mumbai started upcycling CDs as a hobby which soon turned into a full-time venture. She has upcycled 1,000 kilos of discarded vinyl records, CDs and cassettes and prevented 3 kilos of carbon emissions.
Apart from the environmental impact, upcycling can also benefit needy people like in the case of REACH, a student-driven social development initiative taken by IIT-alumni.
Thanks to their efforts, 400 students from government schools who sat on the floor got upcycled desks made from discarded cardboard. You can read their story here.
One important tip to remember here is to never give up. If you fail at upcycling the product that way you wanted it, keep trying other combinations, waste products, and methods.
The mission is to change the perception of waste in people’s minds and reduce the burden on landfills. Vinyl records are made from the non-recyclable plastic called PVC. So when I first thought of upcycling, I immediately started finding ways to upcycle vinyl records. I experimented a lot with any and every kind of waste products that I came across. However, to start a viable social enterprise, I had to narrow it down to create finer products, says Amishi, the founder of Upcycle and Co.
The story could have been different; one different choice, decision or action could have made things better. This thought often haunts every person at one point in their lifetime.
Upcycling has a vast potential to make India one step closer to a waste-free future, and if we channelise the thoughts mentioned above for the betterment of the environment and keep them in mind while indiscriminately exploiting nature, there is a tiny possibility that the global warming crisis can be averted.
It is innovations like these that ATL Tinkering Innovation Marathon aims to develop by giving young innovators a platform to take their ideas to products and help solve issues in different fields from agriculture and infrastructure, to environmental conservation and waste management.
Know more about the ATL Tinkering Innovation Marathon here.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)