I use this term. I don’t know if I invented it and it doesn’t matter whether I did or not.
It means to take one thing and use it for something else. Generally, it’s using a used or free material that would otherwise be discarded as a raw material or subassembly for something else.
It’s closely akin to recycling. The term, “to recycle,” has developed a connotation of processing existing formed parts into raw unit stock for other parts. One example is melting down soda cans into ingots that can be re-used to make more soda cans. Another is mulching used paper for creation of new paper. Less commonly, soda bottles can be melted and turned into filament to make polyester cloth (like denim).
Turtles all the way down
Don’t worry… it’s all qualitative and there won’t be any math. This is vastly simplified and in broad terms.
There’s an energy budget in the universe. There’s some total of energy that exists. Matter and energy are related — Einstein proved this — so we have a combination of energy that has been turned into matter and energy that hasn’t.
Pick your favorite higher power. It’s probably some blend of a God and, “evolution.” I put evolution in quotes because the term itself generally refers to how we got from pure energy to human beings. I’m talking about the higher process of what created the universe and how energy got turned into things like planets and stars. I don’t care what you believe made Earth a pile of carbon, iron and nickel surrounded by nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen; just accept that something made it happen and we’re here now.
Entropy is randomness. Pure energy is purely random. Turning pure energy into matter or more, “useful,” forms of stuff is a decrease in entropy. Your choice of higher power did this. So now we have pockets of lower entropy: if you hold a block of iron in your hand, it represents some of the energy of the universe that was turned into iron atoms. The amount of energy didn’t change. Just the entropy (randomness) of this particular bunch of energy that started as pure energy and became iron atoms.
There’s a lot of these, “pockets,” of randomness that were turned into other things. Energy becomes atoms. Atoms are combined to form molecules. That process requires directed energy like chemical reactions. The direction of energy is an anti-entropic process, which means a something (like your choice of higher power but there are other ways) decreased the randomness of some energy being discombobulated atoms and turned them into molecules.
Molecules get turned into connected structures like crystal lattices, mixtures, suspensions, and the like. Iron gets combined with carbon, nickel, chromium, etc. to become steel. Those structures are formed into parts. Steel gets turned into pistons. Parts are combined to form subassemblies. Pistons are turned into engines. Subassemblies are combined to form assemblies. Engines are turned into cars. Turtles all the way down.
Each of those steps requires energy be directed — chemical reactions, mixing, machining, installation, etc. — and the direction of energy is a reverse of entropy, of randomness.
From a purely abstract viewpoint, there’s no reason we (as humans) can’t make all of these happen. We could take some pure energy in the universe and turn it into a planet. That wouldn’t be cost effective especially since the higher power already did a whole lot of this for us already. We can turn atoms into molecules and we do some of this through some industrial processes. It’s expensive and more often it’s turning a collection of some kind of molecule into a more useful kind of molecule. We routinely turn some collections of molecules into defined structures, like making stainless steel out of iron, carbon, chromium and other molecules. The further towards the final product you get, the easier it is to apply the anti-entropic direction, generally. It’s way easier to turn some steel on a lathe and make a cylinder head than it is to create iron molecules out of energy. Bolting a finished engine onto a car chassis is easier still.
Recycling, in the sense described above, is largely wasteful. Making a product out of a raw material decreases entropy.
The wood started out as a tree. It was cut, mulched, digested, and bleached to make pulp that could be turned into rolls of paper. The paper was cut into neat pieces of uniform-thickness, 8.5-inch by 11-inch pieces. The pieces were stacked, wrapped several times, shipped a few times, and handled several times. Lots of energy, in the form of decreases of entropy, was put into the wood to create the printout sitting in the output tray of a printer.
Municipal recycling would take all the used paper and drop it way down the production chain again. They would go back to the mulching step so everything that happened after that — all the energy that was applied to it — needs to be re-applied to make a new stack of letter size sitting in your printer tray.
The paper is already paper. It’s got scribblings on it from your printer and a bunch of pens. What if we didn’t have to send it so far back down the process?
This is a relatively new word created by the Maker and Pinterest world. It’s not really recycling, which is why they gave it a new term.
Upcycling tends to focus on form over function. Form is important but the bulk of the energy that we put into making the world the way we want it goes to functional changes.
The color of the paper matters but making it glossy pink instead of natural brown-gray (without bleaching) is the smaller part of the energy consumed by the whole process. It’s probably the largest part of the energy consumed by the end user.
The end user is inefficient because they’re not efficient at all the processes required to create the thing that they’re upcycling. They may be good at finishing paper. They’re less efficient (than Georgia Pacific) at making paper. They’re completely inefficient at being trees. They’re ultimately inefficient (read: completely unable to) create a planet with soil and atmosphere near a sun so trees can be trees.
So upcycling is the thought that you’ll find something else that’s already made in a form that’s pretty and convenient (requires less energy to convert) to how you want it to look. It’s cherry picking: ignore the parts of the process you don’t care about to pick off the ones that look aesthetically pleasing.
In this sense, the majority of upcycling is essentially fine art. It’s not creating as much function, it’s creating aesthetic appeal. I’m not knocking this. I have different colors of paint. But it’s not recycling.
Armed with this basis, it’s clear to define transcycling: taking used materials and using them in a form that’s as close to their current form as possible.
The simplest form is using old store circulars to pack something for shipping. It doesn’t matter much what color it is or what it says on it. Your vase doesn’t care if it’s next week’s sales at Kohl’s or the Washington Post international section. You’re just pulling out a piece and hand-shaping it to match the profile of your vase.
You could recycle the newspaper in the blue bin and it would become new newspaper or printer paper. Someone is going to add a lot of energy cost to collect the blue bin, take it to the recycling facility, re-digest it, re-bleach it, re-cut it, re-pack it, re-ship it, etc.
You could sort it by color and upcycle the green bits into grass for your indoor nativity scene. It’s much easier than the recycling process to sort paper, for the end user. Pinterest is full of ideas like, “use the wrapper from cans of Del Monte green beans for nativity scene grass.” Someone is going out to the store to buy these for their arts & crafts project while a bunch of homeless people are opening unlabeled cans only to find out that it’s the fourteenth can of French-cut green beans today. There’s definite value in this upcycling both for nativity art and nourishment. There’s a long tail of cost incurred to make artistic decisions though.
Transcycling aims to reduce the cost of both recycling and upcycling by using things in as close as possible to the form that they’re already in.
Transcycling is not free. There are three major costs involved in transcycling.
Materials need to be sorted and stored. Recycling reduces this cost on a large scale: by putting in additional energy to make standard stock out of existing parts you need to stock fewer things (just standard stock). In my smaller-scale world of around the compound, the cost of recycling everything is higher for me. Thus recycling makes much more sense on a community scale where the average person doesn’t need to worry about how to sort newspaper from cardboard from glossy magazines. They just dump everything that looks like, “paper,” into a blue bin.
There is a very high engineering cost as well. New materials — not recycled or upcycled — are easiest to use. They’re engineered and produced to be easy to use. It’s way easier — in fact, possible versus impossible — to buy fresh printer paper than it is to try to read scribblings that were printed upon scribblings. Making a generator out of an old car engine is complicated beyond the resources (time to learn how, mostly) of most people.
Finally, aesthetic appeal cannot be devalued. It’s of primary value in art and in modern American society it’s often more important how something looks than how it functions. If this weren’t so we’d be buying fewer new cars and the concept of a three-year car lease wouldn’t even exist. There are times when only upcycling will fit requirements because dusty and rusty doesn’t make things look good. Removing dust and rust also takes lots of energy that isn’t always worthwhile.
Here are some good examples of transcycling that works:
- Make a kegerator out of an old dorm fridge. A high-pressure system with a temperature-controlled compressor (the cooling part of a refrigerator) is difficult to make at home. Punching holes in sheet metal and insulation to make the tap requires energy (work) but much less than building the thing from scratch.
- Papier mache models — functional ones like pinatas or fiberglass molds — re-use paper much more efficiently than recycling it. They’re not sturdy which is bad if you’re trying to build a shelf but good if you’re making a pinata.
- Re-heating leftovers is closely akin to transcycling. Last night’s grilled chicken breast makes as good a chicken salad as opening a can of chicken breast, which has a can and a label. Food needs careful storage but that’s cheaper than producing new raw materials (like growing new chickens).