One of the great things about the new environmental movement is the language—people can make up words like locavore (the 2007 word of the year for the Oxford American Dictionary) and upcycling, a term coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle.” (Apparently, brilliantly creative words like screwage and nastifying don’t make the cut.)
Upcycling is the practice of converting something disposable into something of greater use and value. REcycling, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily transform an object into something more valuable or useful. It just transforms something disposable into something that’s ready to be used again (i.e. office paper into toilet paper). Once the paper becomes toilet paper, it’s hit the end of the line, but if you were to upcycle the office paper into fancy schmancy stationary, it could be recycled again and again.
Bah! Who cares about fancy stationary? What about fancy clothes? Armour Sans Anguish makes swanky one-of-a-kind clothing entirely from salvaged and recycled clothing. Their upcycling process is simple, involving little more than scissors and a sewing machine.
But there are other (more complicated) ways to upcycle. One way is to make polyester clothing from recycled plastic bottles. Making virgin polyester requires a lot of petroleum, produces a lot of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and uses a lot of energy. Using recycled plastic bottles to make polyester doesn’t require any oil, produces a lot less pollution and requires a lot less energy. Plus, recycling plastic bottles reduces the amount of plastic cluttering landfills, which is a lot—in 2006, Americans sent 38 billion plastic water bottles to landfills.
Patagonia has been in the recycling business since 1993. As of 2006, their efforts had saved 86 million or so soda bottles from landfills (which, according to the company’s calculations, is enough oil to fill a 40-gallon Chevy Suburban gas tank 20,000 times). In 2005, Patagonia moved way beyond soda bottles to recycling clothing (although they still use recycled plastic bottles as well). Now, Patagonia will recycle your worn out Capilene baselayers, Patagonia fleece, Patagonia cotton shirts and Polartec fleece made by anyone. This whole garment upcycling program has reduced energy use by 76% and CO2 emissions by 71%.
Some companies are following Patagonia’s lead. Marmot uses recycled soda bottles for a whole line of upcycled products, including jackets and sleeping bags. Atayne also uses recycled plastic bottles (combined with activated carbon from waste coconut shells) to make ultra-wicking, stink-minimizing, SPF-protecting shirts. But that’s just the start for this little company. Within the next year, they’ll be upcycling your nasty old polyester-based workout gear into new high-performance apparel.
And so, pack rats rejoice! Your time has come. It’s time to take all those clothes you’ve been stashing in the garage (ahem, you know who you are) to someone who can upcycle them.
*Note: We can’t talk about recycled clothing without mentioning this super-cool phonebook dress. There’s only one problem: it’s not wearable.