Let’s move beyond deadstock! Here are 5 cool, unexpected ways companies are upcycling
By Jeff Moravec
It’s tempting to think that recycling was “invented” sometime in the late 1960s, but that would ignore the fact that back in the 11th century, Japan was figuring out ways to reuse its waste paper.
Recycling today looks much different than it did a thousand years ago, of course, due in part to new challenges from the vast amount—and diversity—of waste produced in our modern society. But for all the struggles that remain surrounding the production and disposal of throwaway consumer products, a positive development is that our focus on recycling has extended far beyond just what to do with soda cans or plastic straws.
Fabric, for example. By one account, Americans throw away more than 70 pounds of textiles per person per year, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates only 15 percent is donated or recycled.
So there is still a lot of work to do. But there are companies that are meeting the challenge head-on, in ways big and small, simple and complex, and making a difference. There are a lot of companies that are upcycling in innovative ways. Here’s a snapshot of the work being done by a few of them.
4 Unexpected ways companies are upcycling
Going creatively green
Creative Coverings is a national linen rental company based in Sparks, Nev., established in 1995, that also manufactures linens for sale to rental companies.
Nancy Stoltz, the company’s director of design, points out that at its core, her organization’s business is eco-friendly. “Renting linens is much greener than using disposable products,” she says.
According to Stoltz, thanks to owners and employees who are passionate about the subject, Creative Coverings pays attention to sustainability in all aspects of its business—from the way its linens are laundered to how clients ship back their used tablecloths and napkins. The company is built around the environmental principles of the Green Seal® program and Design for the Environment, a program of the EPA. The products Creative Coverings uses have also been awarded the EnviroKleen label for meeting environmental concern and protection standards.
“The waste of fabric is always considered during the manufacturing process so that minimal amounts of excess remain,” says Stoltz. “Every singfle linen is used to its full advantage. If something is damaged, we come up with other ways to utilize it. We cut it down to a different size or cut it into swatches. We often create tote bags or napkin and runner sets that we donate or sell. And in recent years added couture throw pillows for use in event lounge spaces.” So, not so much as upcycling old materials, as using zero waste techniques by using scrap fabrics to create useful items. Which is, of course, another way companies can upcycle!
When Creative Coverings ships its orders, says Stoltz, it pays extra to be part of UPS’s carbon neutral program, which supports projects that offset the emissions of the shipment’s transport. Then, when clients return their items, they use a canvas shipping bag provided by Creative Coverings, which saved more than 4,000 cardboard boxes last year.
The company’s environmental emphasis is, according to Stoltz, “a work in progress. We have a very creative team that is always coming up with ideas that can help us go more green.” We can expect more unexpected ways companies are upcycling from Creative Coverings soon, then!
Yet other unexpected ways companies are upcycling are seen at Looptworks.
“I came out of the athletic and outdoor industry and saw the waste that was produced in the process of manufacturing textiles for outdoor apparel. I thought, ‘There has to be a better way,’” says Scott Hamlin, who turned that thought into Looptworks, a Portland based company that takes excess materials and transforms them into new products. Hamlin is a founding partner of the company and serves as its CEO.
Hamlin says he saw an industry that had 15–30 percent of its materials left over after manufacturing: “They were selling it off to third world countries for pennies on the kilo, which was wiping out local industries in different parts of the world, putting it into landfills or incinerators, or sending it back into the factories where it would come back out as falsified goods.
“None of those were good solid options,” says Hamlin.
So Looptworks started by intercepting pre-consumer excess that was left over at the factory level and turning it into new products, says Hamlin, a process now known as “upcycling.” From there, the company has gone on to partner with large brands including the National Basketball Association (see sidebar on the left) and Delta Airlines, as well as athletic companies, to handle other facets of their waste stream, including post-consumer materials.
“We were ahead of the market when we started talking about upcycling,” explains Hamlin. “Most people thought we were talking about riding a bicycle up a hill! The concept was pretty nascent. The market has caught up a little bit, at least on an industry level, where people are more familiar with what that means.”
Today, Looptworks has an active market in the products produced through upcycling, including apparel, backpacks, handbags and totes, with reverse supply chains for deconstruction, sorting and manufacturing.
But what about the name of the company?
“It’s not called ‘Upcycledworks’ for a reason,” says Hamlin. “Technologies have not necessarily been aligned for a circular economy model, but we knew that eventually that’s where we needed to get to. Upcycling has been the first step in that. Then the reverse logistics has been part of it. The last move is toward circularity, in which we take some of the materials that we intercept and convert those back to fiber—creating new fabrics from them.
“We’re continuing the education process that we’ve been doing for several years on the circular economy and closed loop,” says Hamlin. “And I think people will start to catch up on that as well.”
More sustainable sailing
Revelstoke is a small town in British Columbia, Canada, known for its mountains, snow skiing opportunities and outdoor lifestyle.
As such, it’s a community that is concerned about the environment—a community that includes the employees of Shade Sails Canada, a family-owned business that sells its products throughout Canada as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. They demonstrate another of the unexpected ways companies are upcycling
“It’s a forward-thinking community,” says Graham Harper, Shade Sails Canada operations manager, and one that was eager to help out when the company decided it needed to do something new with the amount of waste that was coming from the manufacture of its products.
Thus, in late 2018 the Green Bag Company was born (with Shade Sails Canada as its parent). It produces a line of bags, many of them intended for gardening, using those excess materials.
“As a company, we talked a lot with the people who live here about what we might be able to do with the materials,” says Harper, “and everybody agreed that gardening products would be a good place to start. There was certainly a lot of interest in what we wanted to do.”
The bags include various sizes of grow bags and transplanter kits, as well as seedling cones. The line also includes tote and shopping bags, wine bags and utility bags, as well as bags for hockey equipment and ski boots.
Gardening is particularly an ideal use for the shade fabric, according to Harper. The shade fabric is resistant to fading, breathable, washable and withstands a wide range of weather conditions. It is also extremely strong and comes in a wide range of vibrant colors.
Harper says the company hopes the current product line is just a start. Green Bag Company is already looking for new product possibilities, including sandbox covers and fashion bags.
“Our ultimate goal is zero waste,” says Harper. “There are always other things to look at.”
Recycling with sole
The benefits of recycling are obvious—some of them, anyway, but perhaps not all.
For example, it’s clearly a good thing that 35 million pairs of shoes and 12 million pieces of apparel have been recycled since 2006 by Soles4Souls, a nonprofit organization based in Nashville, Tenn.
Soles4Souls collects new and gently used shoes and apparel and then ships them to the 127 countries that have been recipients of their services. However, its larger goal is to provide the goods to individuals in those countries who want to start small businesses selling the products that come from Soles4Souls.
“We do immediate relief around the world through the distribution of shoes and clothing,” says Tiffany Turner, director of outreach. “But we also want to help alleviate poverty through empowerment and opportunity. By creating jobs and empowering entrepreneurs, we want to create a long-term solution to poverty.”
The income the small business owners earn gives them the ability to purchase necessities like food, shelter and education for their families, says Turner. “It’s amazing to see their success,” she adds, “especially when the business owner is female, because their opportunities are slim to none in many of these countries.”
Soles4Souls gets its products through shoe drops in retail locations; through drives sponsored by businesses, corporations, students, civic groups and churches; and through overstock, defective products and returns from companies such as adidas and Patagonia.
It’s yet another of the unexpected ways companies are upcycling to become more sustainable themselves. And I can only imagine this trend will grow.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.
Reprinted with adaptions and permission of Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). All rights reserved by IFAI. For more information, visit www.ifai.com. All images via the brands.