Is There Such a Thing as TOO MUCH Upcycling?
There's so much "junk" coming into the average household that upcycling can usually only be a small part of the waste reduction picture. If we don't want to end up drowning in boxes and bags and stacks of "I'm totally gonna do something with those someday", the focus should be on eliminating or reducing the amount of junk coming in, or finding and funding more accessible and larger scale ways to recycle it.
Upcycling a wine bottle into a candle holder or crafting plastic six pack can rings into a handbag doesn't solve the larger issue that glass recycling is broken in the U.S. or make a meaningful dent in the problem of can rings littering marine environments and harming wildlife.
Of course it's the case that 'you can't do everything, but you can do something', and 'the longest journey starts with a single step', and whatever other applicable cliche fits here, but we need to be honest with ourselves about how much impact these activities actually have. Is reusing old things is preferable to buying new things to do our Pinterest-worthy craftivities? Sure. But requiring massive multinational firms to use post-consumer waste and recycled plastic, paper, and metal feedstock in making their billions of single-use bottles, cans, and rolls of toilet paper would have far more of an impact.
Creative reuse, art for art's sake, saving money, making ourselves feel better, social media virtue signaling, using recycled material use as a marketing tool for our businesses - all of these things matter, and these are closer to the real impact of upcycling. But you know your drawer stuffed with twist ties from garbage bags, plastic expiration date tags from bread bags, and banana stickers isn't really 'saving Mother Earth', right?
I teach a virtual science class, and we made mason jar spouts out of used cartons this week. We used them in our 'yeast balloons' activity. We attached a balloon to the jar spouts we made, we mixed yeast, honey, and water in mason jars, and the
byproduct (carbon dioxide) of the fermentation reaction inflated the balloon. But, I live in a household of six people (and two dogs, 2 turtles, and a snake). We go through 10 or so cartons a month - sometimes more. How many mason jar spouts do I actually need? Should I save my cartons to make more? In a year, that's over 100 cartons! We barely have room for the people and pets in this house, much less for saving milk cartons.
Cartons are a great example of recycling problems that have no easy answers. Cartons are (theoretically) 100% recyclable, However, cartons are made of plastic/paper or plastic/paper/aluminum fused together, so it's not easy or cheap to recycle them. Cities need to be able to afford the proper equipment to do so. However, cartons sure do a great job of lengthening shelf life and protecting liquids from spoiiage, thus reducing food waste. And refillable glass bottle milk is not available in most cities. AND if your family is vegan for spiritual, environmental, or health reasons, you may have no other choice but to purchase these cartons, because that's how vegan milks are packaged. If you live in a city that cannot recycle cartons, and the companies that make glass bottle milk won't deliver to your city, and the answer you're given is "Our advice is that you don't use cartons, then!" or "DIY your own vegan milk", perhaps direct your municipal recycling leaders to read the following:
The Elitism of the Zero Waste Trend:
Five Ways Your Zero Waste is Annoying and Tone Deaf:
Now let's look at the state of glass recycling in the U.S., and the various ways to upcycle wine bottles. Only 40% of the glass that goes in our curbside bins is actually recycled. Glass is infinitely recyclable, and can be used in cement, concrete, road beds, pavement, trench fill, as a drainage medium, and even as a landfill cover, and in abrasives, fluxes/additives, manufacturing of fiberglass insulation and foam insulation. Many communities, however, don't have the necessary infrastructure to get glass recycled.
Back to the wine bottle candles. 70% of the over 4 billion bottles of wine bottles Americans go through each year are landfilled. Is the answer this problem to use our wine bottles at home to make candles? Nah. Wine bottle candles are cool, but what we really need to do is invest in better recycling infrastructure and extended producer responsibility throughout the U.S.