Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Upcycling and big retail: good news (?)

The New York Time has an interesting article today about upcycling (using waste materials to create new products) , built around an interview with Terracycle Inc.'s founder Tom Szaky. Upcycling has been around long before the word was coined in by the authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) -- remember all the jeans-to-skirt transformations of the late 1960S -- but it's usually been a small-scale activity, at the production and/or retail level. It's not too hard to find individual DIY-ers who upcycle, or to find boutiques and specialty stores who sell products made from "trash".

These efforts make large individual statements, but a more modest environmental impact. What is striking -- and hopeful -- about the Terracycle story is the scale of the operation. They buy their raw materials -- soda bottle and juice boxes -- from churchs and schools who collect them, and they sell them in huge quanities through Wal-Mart and Target. The low cost makes Terracycle's goods accessible to people who can't afford to pay the "green premium" that more affluent consumers are willing to pay.

I can imagine that in my college classroom, this would spin into a discussion on big box vs. small retailers, the impact of corporate upcycling on fair trade craft industries in developing counties and other compicated ethical and economic issues. This still feels like mostly good news to me; what say the readers?

(Thanks to the best son-in-law on the planet for this tip!)


Jacob said...

aww, thanks for the compliment!

additional issues that sprang to my mind:

- reliance on volunteer suppliers to feed Terracycle's profit model. it seems like an odd ethical question at first glance, but i guess it's not out of the ordinary. by definition, people assign no economic value to trash, right? maybe this just seems odd in conjunction with the next issue...

- the IP angle. basically, Terracycle's not just giving the raw materials a "second life": it's allowing the source materials' original companies to get a second lease on showing off their brand. (look no further than the pic of the CapriSun backpack in the NYT piece.) and that's on top of the companies' ability to play up the "green" angle, of course. i'd question how many people would actually pay money to be a walking billboard/free advertiser, but i do realize that folks already do this - witness all the coca-cola t-shirts and whatnot.

Jo said...

Good points. I need to think about the second one for a while. There's a Warhol-esque element to the use of commercial design in this way, too. But as for the volunteer suppliers, my reading of the article is that they do get paid, not unlike what I used to get for collecting pop bottles.