'Upcycling' trash

Creative transformation of waste through art and design is the new in thing

Although dead stock fabric and scraps are inevitable during production, Anupol Yooyuen, design director of Pimpen, a furniture upholstery company, is optimistic that much of these discarded items can be transformed into something attractive, productive and possibly lucrative.

"The furniture upholstery industry relies on fashion trends that are always changing. It's always out with the old and in with the new." Anupol said "Last year's trends of fabric utilisation in our business generated stockpiles of materials that occupy office space and need maintenance.

"The fabric is still of high quality but the pattern has become out of date. It's a leftover."

The dead stock from the firm's annual production amounts to over thousands of metres of fabrics worth more than 400,000 baht each year.

"We had no idea what to do with this waste that increased every year and kept adding to stocking costs. Sometimes we sold off the scraps cheaply to those who wanted to buy it even if it wasn't worth the price they're willing to pay," Anupol said.

This was before his company entered the "Waste to Wealth" programme. Once it joined the scheme, Anupol began to see light at the end of the tunnel. The programme was launched in 2008, with 17 companies from different sectors participating in the first phase, and eight in the second. The aim was to help entrepreneurs who operate small- and medium-sized enterprises transform unused raw material, scraps and cut-offs generated during manufacturing into commercial products and add value to them.

In other words, waste is "upcycled" into creative new products of financial and environmental value.

According to Dr Singh Intrachooto, an assistant professor and head of the Creative Centre for Eco-design at the Faculty of Architecture, Kasetsart University, and a founder of Scrap Lab, upcycling involves taking an item no longer of use, or waste material, and turning them into new products of better quality.

It is the opposite to "downcycling" which involves converting materials or products into new materials or products of lesser quality.

"Upcycling relates to techniques and designs employed to create a new innovative item. It's something that recycling doesn't do. Simply put, there must be an increase in worth and quality of upcycled products," said Dr Singh, the country's leading eco-architect who has advocated creative transformation of waste material through art and design.

"We've worked hard through design and techniques to come up with products that are attractive yet productive in order to catch the attention of consumers. They are sellable."

Working hand in hand with members of the Industrial Technology Assistance Programme (iTAP), a unit of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), and Dr Singh and his team of consultants, and science and design specialists, Anupol has produced prototypes of upcycled products that he's put on exhibition, and the response from consumers has been positive.

"Technique and design make a difference." Anupol said "They give our out-of-fashion fabrics a new life. Consumers couldn't tell our upcycled products were made from waste and scraps. We are in the process of manufacturing them for sale. Hopefully, we will have them on market shelves within three months.

"The programme is feasible. It inspired us to create new ideas and make the most of our waste. We have a team who are skilled at designing and we apply knowledge we've learned to our products. We anticipate that our upcycled products would make viable financial returns in the future."

In fact, the idea of turning waste into wealth has proved fruitful for one other company that joined the programme in the first phase. Phalatt Leowkijsiri, the innovation manager at Thai Techno Glass Co, which manufactures safety glass for automotive and building use, said the company upcycled products made of glass cut-offs went on to win many prizes in the design category. They have been on sale at home and decoration fairs, and now he is trying to get his products into the country's leading home stores.

"We've realised the great potential for return. Our company is now considering opening a new business line of upcycled products," he said Phalatt pointed out that some consumers think the company's upcycled products are expensive after they learned that they were made from waste.

"We have to educate consumers that they are not buying garbage but ideas to change their mindset." he said "Upcycled products are innovative and environmentally friendly. They help reduce the need for new materials to fabricate new products. And the reduction of new materials can lead to less energy consumption during production, with no pollution nor noxious emissions generated during the process. And think about a life-cycle assessment showing that the replacement cost of each product already includes greenhouse effects."

The road to running an upcycling business is not strewn with roses. In addition to figuring out proper designs and techniques needed to convert waste to products that are both innovative and useful, a market-driven approach, Dr Singh noted, can be a big challenge.

"We have tried to push entrepreneurs to send their upcycled products to enter contests in order to boost confidence amongst consumers and showcase them at trade fairs and exhibitions, the main points of contact between entrepreneurs and consumers." said Suwipa Wanasathop, deputy executive director of the Technology Management Center and NSTDA vice-president for business development.

"One man's trash can be another man's treasure," Suwipa said. "Entrepreneurs need to ask what is their waste and try to challenge themselves to think what they could do with it.

"We also encourage those who want to collect trash and turn it into useful sellable items and make money from it. Upcycling businesses can be potentially paying."

"It's a good idea to create upcycled products that help us optimise resources and, importantly, they have commercial and economic value." said Ongorn Abhakorn Na Ayuthaya, first executive vice-president of Siam Commercial Bank "We hope to see SMEs embrace the idea of upcycling and start their own business. And we are very pleased to give them professional advice, financial consulting and related support."

Suwipa believes the Waste to Wealth programme will help push Thailand another step forward towards a creative economy, transforming ideas and knowledge into money.

"Science is important to the success of a creative economy. This programme at least has proved that science and design are able to work in sync to create innovative results," she said

To make the idea of a creative economy tangible, Dr Singh said it's important to take the Office of Knowledge Management Development and the Thailand Creative Design Centre seriously. The creation of a skilled workforce is another important drive. And cultivating innovative thinking among the public will act as a catalyst for creative economy.

"We now lack true masters who are mad about their crafts." said Dr Singh. "Vocational graduates are the driving force behind successful design and creative projects. But we sometimes forget to credit them for their contributions.

"Your innovative spirit and environmental concern can lead to upcycling in almost all areas of life. Expand your awareness to observe and widen your creativity. Before throwing away items you're no longer using, try to think outside the box. How we can upcycle them to something we can use in order to create as much value out of them as possible. It helps us save financially. It also helps save the planet."

About the author

Writer: Sukhumaporn Laiyok
Position: Life reporter