A used bicycle tyre in a rural village became a toy in the hands of an able parent or child with the addition of a mere stick and an old saree found a place in the window as a curtain. These creations were the result of involuntary upcycling. Upcycling began in developing countries as a means of frugally repurposing waste, often with added value. It unintentionally reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfills.
A lot of the things we call waste today have only been used once, such as plastic packaging, newspapers, use-and-throw pens, and pickle jars. This stuff can easily be upcycled, instead of being reverted to its main ingredients in recycling. Unlike recycling, upcycling requires minimal energy, and all materials come from waste. According to a study on African upcycling, it “helps the environment by reducing consumer demand for manufactured goods”, as some people buy upcycled items instead. Upcycled goods could replace new items, lessening the drain on resources.
A woman who sells upcycled baby shoes in China, the largest developing country in the world, said that when her parents were young, “everyone was so poor they did upcycling without knowing it … or that it was good for the environment”. Upcycling in developing nations was created out of necessity, and as the woman went on to say: “once strong economic growth happened they forgot it, because they could buy what they wanted for cheap”. But now, even people who can afford new items are starting to buy upcycled goods, jumping on the bandwagon of a new trend. The world is re-discovering upcycling, and on a larger scale - not only for one’s own use, but to make a profit.
The upcycled goods made in developing countries have found a place on the first world’s new market for upcycled products. One upcycling business from Bangalore, India, called “The Second Life”, sells upcycled newspaper goods on Etsy, a sales network that reaches across the globe. Similar entrepreneurial upcyclers can also reach the global market from developing countries, enabling them to expand their businesses. Since upcycling does not require trained professionals, this could create more employment opportunities for people, both skilled and unskilled, in their community.
In Brazil, another one of the developing giants, fashion designer Alexandre Herchcovitch set up a booth in the middle of a shopping mall, raising awareness for upcycling. He and his team collected old clothing at a booth and upcycled it in the middle of the mall, re-selling the new unique clothes at another stand. Events like this have started throughout the world, for instance in India, like Amazon’s fashion week in Mumbai. One designer, Amit Aggarwal, created a line of upcycled clothing, even making his sequins from used X-ray film. The involvement of big designers in events such as these creates publicity about the possibilities of upcycling.
New initiatives have brought upcycling into the limelight. It is an ideal time for developing nations to practice and grow what they have done for years. Developing countries can bring it to the next level by using their upcycling skills and creativity to reduce the growing amount of waste and conserve raw materials, helping save the environment.
Written by Cauviya Selva
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