This piece is a discussion on the kind of research that goes into creating products from waste, through the process of Upcycling.
What is upcycling?
It has been well established that the current linear system of ‘take-make-dispose’ economy is not only generating enormous volumes of waste, but is also depleting natural resources at an alarming rate. The apparent solution to this issue is to Reduce-Reuse and Recycle (3Rs). However, when products are designed to last only for a short span of time, it is very difficult to reduce consumption.
Generally, when waste such as plastic, paper, and iron is recycled, a lower grade is obtained. This is known as downcycling. In fact, only aluminium and glass are said to be 100% recyclable. We still lack the technology to help reclaim a material from waste, into its parent form.
Upcycling, on the other hand, is the “creative reuse of waste.” It is that crucial link between the 3R’s. For instance, a tin can may be used as a pen stand. By finding a new purpose for the discarded product, one is extending its lifespan and thereby preventing it from entering the landfill. So, upcycling involves creating new products from waste, using minimal input and no fuel. It has become a growing trend, with several Do-It-Yourself videos and blogs doing the rounds in cyberspace. Although, it is argued that this stems more from a need for self expression and not out of a concern for the environment. The ultimate goal either way, is a positive one!
What is the Role of a Designer?
Products tell a story; designers help translate their ideas into products, through the use of materials and that in turn, becomes a part of the storytelling experience. According to Mike Ashby and Kara Johnson, “product designers seek to blend the technical with the aesthetic, combining practical utility with emotional delight.”
The designer invariably needs to do a lot of research. First, an extensive study needs to be carried out to understand the materials. Sometimes, one needs a specific material to make the idea/concept viable, or one needs to come up with ideas based on the intrinsic qualities of the chosen material. Next, a thorough understanding of the manufacturing process is necessary in order to know if the idea is scalable or not. This will also help make necessary decisions on efficient material utilisation, which would help reduce manufacturing costs.
Subsequently, the designer must observe human behaviour in order to understand how best the product could be suited to satisfy either the want or the need of the consumer. For, that would help determine the demand of the product.
What is the Design Process of Upcycled Products?
One particular article said that upcycling could be an economically viable business model especially since the materials are available in abundance and can be easily accessed. But this is not entirely the case. There are many parameters to look into, while designing with waste. Mentioned below are some of the factors:
First, designing with waste is not the same as designing from scratch, using raw materials. Typically, waste comprises things like plastic bottles, glass bottles, tin cans, etc. which are already processed products. As opposed to what was mentioned previously, it will be difficult for a designer to source a specific material for an idea, from waste. Instead, the idea must emerge from the discarded object. For example, one cannot simply invent an electronic device from e-waste, because the circuit boards and other components are created to solve a very specific problem - they are not generic. Moreover, these components are deliberately created to last only for a short span of time. There is no guarantee that the upcycled device would last, or even work at all, for that matter.
When working with waste, it is important to spend time to understand the strengths and the limitations of the material. That would help provide insights into how it can be preserved, whether it needs to combine with something else for improved strength and durability, and how safe that would be. This is especially the case with wood ( read further here).
A lot of subtle yet important details emerge only during the prototyping stage and therefore it is very crucial to keep experimenting. For instance, when artist Gregory Kloehn created a living space out of a dumpster, he initially worked with the space inside the dumpster and later realised he could capitalise on the space available outside, as well. This enabled the artist to think of how best to maximise space, which was something very new. An image of the design is given below.
Prototyping also helps understand whether a product is durable or not. This is very important since the demand for a product is determined by its usefulness.
Thus, It can be said that upcycling is a creative exercise which helps expand the mind of the designer allowing for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. This cannot be a substitute for the existing linear system of production, but it does help bring in “sensible design sense”.
Certain private enterprises have taken an initiative towards a “close loop manufacturing” process such as Looptworks. However, interventions at a larger policy level are required, in order to really address the problems of production. A previously written blog post about Circular Economy provides further insights into such emerging policies.
Material sourcing and scalability in the Indian context
Logically speaking, it should be an easy process to set up a unit that can bulk-generate upcycled products, given that waste is so abundantly available and it requires minimal input. While it is true that waste is generated in large volumes, sourcing can be a challenge, due to a variety of reasons. Firstly, the waste ecosystem in India is unorganised and there is no specific point of contact. It requires several visits to the Kabadiwallas to understand what is available and how the materials have been classified, as they are not classified merely into wood, paper or glass - there are various sub categories specific to each kind of material. Interestingly, these subcategories have evolved based on local terminology and sometimes, they are based on pricing, too (ref blog). Different types of plastics, for instance, have been grouped together as ‘masala plastic’, ‘bommai plastic’, or ‘karupu plastic’, etc. which are local terminology. It is important, then, to understand the classification of materials in the informal waste system, in order to understand sourcing and manufacturing. Along the way, one could even stumble upon a lot of new and exciting things, as well!
Subsequently, the waste passes several hands within the city and it even reaches other cities across the country. There always exists a demand for the waste being generated, because of the existence of all the middlemen, as a result of which availability can be an issue. One needs to be able to manoeuvre through this complex network in order to ensure a constant supply of the discarded items.
Upcycling is an intrinsic part of the culture and lifestyle in 3rd world countries (more on that here). A lot of small and medium sized factories also rely on the waste material being collected, which further adds to the complexity. For instance, garment factories generate end bits (chinti) which are sold in bulk to the wholesalers, who in turn sell it to other industries. The bits are made into cushions, or used as waste cloth in car garages, printing units and for white washing walls. Thus, industries also put pressure on the demand for certain kinds of scrap that gets salvaged, further affecting its availability.
Kabadiwallas collect only those items that have a resale value, which again influences what kinds of items are available. Incandescent bulbs can be upcycled to make planters and hanging sculptures, but they are not collected by the kabadiwallas. This reiterates the importance of carefully studying the informal waste system. One could argue that a demand for light bulbs could be created when such sculptures are sold in the market which would become an incentive for the kabadiwallas to source more incandescent bulbs. Or, one could not sell those products at all, and instead, work with something that is easily found in large numbers such as, glass bottles. Thus, designs must emerge from an understanding of the waste system, while keeping in mind the consumer market.
Very often, the manufacturing methods also need to be derived along the way, although it helps to have a sense of the existing conventional manufacturing processes because that knowledge helps create an alternative production method. With the use of “specific and varied production techniques”, upcycled products tend to have a fairly high manufacturing cost. This gets reflected in the prices of the items. Perhaps that explains why most upcycled products are handmade and cater to a niche market, as each piece is crafted with a lot of thought and is available only in limited numbers.
Can This Become a Sustainable Revenue Model?
As it has been outlined, a thorough study needs to be carried out to solve issues pertaining to sourcing and manufacturing, which could take a considerable amount of time. One might even have to invest in special machinery to support production and that can sometimes work out to be expensive. Nevertheless, several brands and enterprises across the globe have emerged that sell upcycled products. It was interesting to see how they managed to churn out products in large numbers.
Upcycled products are handmade, to a large extent. So firms have managed by employing people to help provide support, thereby making it a more inclusive initiative. RagBag is one such brand. Since working with fabric requires little space and minimal equipment, RagBag manages to supply to several stores across Europe by employing people from economically weaker backgrounds, in turn providing a source of livelihood to the needy.
The other approach is to start a brand and also sell products made by other artists, thereby increasing the variety of products rather than churning out large numbers of a particular item. The Sweccha Store is one such example of an online market that features the work of other brands/artists in addition to their own product line. TerraCycle on the other hand, has several revenue models. They conduct outreach programs like recycling drives, while managing a successful online store that does not stop at selling upcycled products - it also deals in organic composting supplies. Terracycle is a brand that has successfully managed to find the infrastructure to be able to generate upcycled products in bulk, and they have done so, after spending 10 years on research work.
A thorough study needs to be carried out before upcycled products can be introduced in the market. One must be able to address issues pertaining to material supply, find the right infrastructure to support bulk generation, while being conscious of the tastes and preferences of the target audience.
Part of our mission, at Kabadiwalla Connect is to create a line of exciting and innovative upcycled products that will change the way people look at waste, and carve out a significant niche for itself in the marketplace.If you’re an artist/designer and would like to work with us, please do mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
-Written by Mridula Harihar
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