Many outdoor companies use recycled materials to improve their ecological footprint and move towards circular business models. But what is upcycling and downcycling, and how do they fit into the bigger picture?

First, what does recycling mean and what forms does it take?

In the literal sense, “re-cycling” means bringing something “back” into the “cycle.” The most natural form of recycling is composting, i.e. the biological decomposition of organic materials and their reutilization in new organic substances. Technical recycling involves collecting waste materials, processing them and turning them into new products. The recycled materials can be waste from industry (pre-consumer waste) or waste generated by private consumption (post-consumer waste).

The most concrete and everyday example is probably the recycling of old PET bottles, returnable cans and glass bottles into new PET bottles, returnable cans and glass bottles of the same quality. Here, the material cycle is closed, which is why it is also referred to as closed-loop recycling (primary recycling). A distinction is made between downcycling (secondary recycling), in which waste materials are reused but the new material is of poorer quality. For example, when cotton from T-shirts is turned into insulation material.

Today, the term “upcycling” is also used more frequently to describe the fact that a material is upgraded through reuse. Examples of this include rucksacks made from old lorry tarpaulins or recycled nylon made from old fishing nets or carpets.

How much closed-loop recycling is there in outdoor products?

Unfortunately still too little. Many leading outdoor companies are increasingly using recycled materials in their material mix. However, these are not obtained from old outdoor products, but come almost exclusively from other sources. The dominant source material remains recycled polyester from the PET bottle deposit system (rPET). This is usually combined with other materials in the outdoor industry and is difficult to recover afterwards. This is therefore considered downcycling.

We can only speak of closed-loop recycling when old outdoor products are actually recycled into new outdoor products, i.e. the loop is closed. The prerequisite for this is that clothing and hardware not only consist of recycled materials, but are also themselves recyclable. And that there is an appropriate collection infrastructure and efficient recycling processes.

However, the outdoor industry is still a long way from achieving this. Progress is being made, particularly in the chemical recycling of polyester blended textiles. Several facilities are currently being developed that chemically break down material blends into their components and thus recover the polyester. So far, however, this is still a very complex and energy-intensive process that can only become a realistic recycling alternative for the industry with larger capacities and comprehensive commercial implementation and infrastructure (as with the PET deposit system).

Is upcycling an alternative for the outdoor industry?

In principle, any type of material recovery that conserves resources, avoids waste and does not harm the climate or the environment in the process is a good alternative. And that can be the case with upcycling.

On the one hand, there is the creative recycling of materials from things that are no longer in use. The French brand La Virgule, for example, produces bags and rucksacks from discarded lifeboats. The material itself remains basically unchanged (unlike PET, for example, which is shredded, melted down and remoulded during recycling); it retains its quality and is simply given a new “higher” purpose.

Another important form of upcycling is the utilization of pre-consumer waste to make outdoor materials. The Swedish shoe brand Icebug, for example, uses wool scraps from the production of the clothing brand Woolpower as insulation and sometimes even as outer material for its boots. Fjällräven also makes rucksacks from surplus wool. The Finnish Kupilka mugs contain natural fibre composite material made from wood industry waste. And the high-quality leather in gloves or hiking boots comes from animal skins that were once a waste product of the meat industry.

For the sustainability balance of upcycling, the decisive factor is ultimately how long the life of a material can be extended and whether it can be recycled again at the end. Another important aspect is the energy consumption for collecting and processing the material compared to conventional extraction/production.

How sustainable is upcycling from ocean plastic?

Nowadays, you often come across outdoor products in which, according to the brands, “ocean plastic” (plastic from the oceans), “ghost nets” (old salvaged fishing nets) or other rubbish collected in nature has been processed. Basically a good idea, but in reality not a scalable alternative at this time. This is because the chemical processing of plastic waste into nylon or polyester material that is acceptable in terms of quality and health is still too costly and uneconomical.

In most cases, the proportion of waste that actually comes from the environment is very low, which is why critics often speak of greenwashing. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that upcycling ocean plastic helps to reduce waste and raise awareness. As with other chemical recycling processes, development is only just beginning – larger capacities and more effective processes could also ensure greater economic efficiency here.

Seaqual Yarn, one of the best-known nylon materials made from recycled plastic waste, is said to contain at least 10 per cent marine plastic, while the other 90 per cent is made from post-consumer waste. The recycled nylon Econyl from Italian manufacturer Aquafil also consists of only a small proportion of old fishing nets and mainly carpet remnants (pre/post-consumer).

What is the Global Recycled Standard (GRS)?

The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) was developed in 2008 to record the exact proportion of recycled materials in products and to create transparency about their composition. At the same time, it is intended to enable the traceability of recycled materials and ensure that they come from ecologically and socially responsible sources.

Since 2011, the non-profit organization Textile Exchange has been responsible for the GRS, together with other sustainability standards such as the Organic Content Standard (OCS), Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). Certification is carried out by independent third-party providers.

The GRS seal is awarded when recycled materials are used as raw materials or base materials and the ecological and social criteria are met. It can then be communicated on product labels, packaging or in online shop information, for example.

 

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jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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