By Yasmine Miemiec, managing director of 5inc

According to the South African State of Waste Report, in 2017, South Africans generated 42 million tons of general waste, of which 4.9 million tons were recycled. This means that more than 37 million tons of waste was sent to landfill to rot and pollute the atmosphere. With waste and refuse increasing exponentially each year households, business and industry sectors can no longer turn a blind eye.

Already there are reports that Johannesburg’s landfills will reach capacity within the next six years and to combat this ever-growing problem of waste, many organisations think that recycling is the best way to tackle this issue.

Conversely, there are also other options such as upcycling that can aid in the fight against waste and pollution and companies should bear in mind that both upcycling and recycling have a place in corporate waste management. However, upcycling and recycling use distinctly different processes that feature their own benefits, depending on the quantity and type of waste that is handled.

We all know about recycling – but where does the waste come from?

The biggest waste stream in South Africa is general waste. which is made up of organic waste such as food, gardening or animal waste. In addition, we have construction waste such as building rubble, sand or wood and then other waste such as paper, glass, metal, plastic and electronic materials.

There are different ways to assist with decreasing this waste. One of these options is recycling where waste material is converted into the raw material for the manufacture of new products. For example, once cold drink cans made from aluminium are used, they can be melted down and used to create new cans. The key differentiator of recycling is the fact that used products are put through a process to create the new version of the same product. However, even though most people are familiar with recycling, along with the public and corporates, know very little about the benefits of upcycling.

Upcycling: better quality and higher environmental value

Upcycling is the process of transforming waste materials or unwanted products into different, new products of higher environmental value. When one upcycles, they are not breaking down the materials of waste products as with recycling where plastic, for example, is melted down to create more plastic. With upcycling the item is refashioned, using the same materials. A good example here, is using old tyres to make products like bags, dog beds and shoes. The material is still the rubber from the tyres, just used in new ways.

So, what’s the difference? They both save the planet, right?

In a nutshell, the difference between the two is that recycling involves a shredding, melting and / or compressing process, usually to recreate the same products as the original products. Upcycling involves taking unwanted or used items and repurposing them to create different items.

Both processes have an important role to play in the management of waste. Recycling is vital because of the volumes of material that can be processed and converted. Billions of tin cans are discarded each year but this amount of material cannot be upcycled into products that people will need. However, the problem with recycling lies in the fact that it has a high energy cost compared to upcycling due to the processes involved.

Upcycling, on the other hand has a human element because people are employed in the transformation of the products. The energy inputs for upcycling are also lower than for recycling. For example, there is electricity used for sewing or woodwork, but these are minimal compared to the industrial processes use for recycling.

It comes down to upcycling – the creative benefit

Not every waste stream can be upcycled but where material can be transformed there is also a creative benefit for companies. We have seen offices where all the office décor and furniture is made from materials which have been upcycled, and this conveys the repurposing message to the staff in a subliminal way as well as sparking their creative juices.

So, where does recycling and upcycling fit in with corporate waste management?

When a company produces enormous quantities of waste material like wood from construction sites, it may not be feasible to upcycle all of it. In this case the company may choose to recycle the bigger volumes of waste and upcycle the smaller volumes.

The benefit of this approach is that both ends of the value chain are supported. The recycling companies are employed but the company also contributes to income generation and job creation through upcycling. Upcycling, however, as a practice is not as widely used by corporates. South African companies should be consulting with companies to try and see what waste they produce and understand where they can make a difference.