The Downside of Upcycling
by Gabriel Cross
Upcycling is a fancy word for doing something our great grandparents did every day without a care for sustainability: taking junk and putting it to new use. Think of old tattered clothes being turned into quilts, and you pretty much get the idea. They did it just to be thrifty, but today it is a growing fad amongst the green crowd.
This particular choice is designed to point out that most recycling is actually what some call ‘downcycling,’ meaning that the end result is often less valuable, less recyclable, and more prone to end up in a landfill than the material’s original use. One oft sited example is the practice of taking several different types of plastic waste and recycling them into composite plastics for park benches or structural members. While this extends the useful life of the plastic quite a bit, the resulting composite plastic is not itself recyclable (generally speaking), and when it breaks it can only be incinerated or sent to the landfill.
This is a huge problem, because whether incinerated or land-filled, plastics eventually break down, releasing potentially harmful hydrocarbons and endocrine disrupting compounds. Endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) are a class of chemicals which either mimic or inhibit the natural function of the endocrine system. Many common EDCs mimic estrogen, for example, and have been shown to do reproductive harm in many different species. Even ‘medical grade’ plastics (like those used for IV drip bags and hoses) eventually break down, and in the process leach out suspected EDCs. These chemicals leach into groundwater, are consumed by fish and wildlife, and eventually find their way back into our bodies.
It was previously thought that hard plastics remained inert for decades or longer without degrading, but recent research has consistently shown that all plastics leach EDCs, even shortly after production. Mineral water bottled in plastic containers, for example, has significantly higher levels of EDCs than that bottled in glass. Upcycling plastic bottles into artwork, lamps, and other do-dads might seem like an excellent way to keep these harmful chemicals out of the landfills, but it is somewhat dismaying to me that it means they will stay in our homes.
To be fair, no one is really sure how damaging these EDCs are to us, or at what concentration in our bodies (there a lot of variables, and designing a study that controls for all of them is nearly impossible), but it seems to me that before cutting into plastic stuff to use it for something other than its original purpose, it might be wise to first get a PhD in chemistry and/or endocrinology. Tin cans, another popular medium for upcyclers, are almost always coated with a plasticised layer to prevent the moisture in the food from rusting through the can, and these coatings are also known to contain EDCs.
I would be lying if I said that I understood anything about how the endocrine system actually functions. I don’t have any degrees in chemistry or endocrinology. But then again, I have decided not to reuse any plastic stuff if I can avoid it, because I don’t like messing with things I don’t understand. And really, is it worth playing with plastics because the theory that they can be harmful is only plausible and not yet proven?
I applaud the creativity of those trying to find innovative ways to improve the value of trash, and I think it is a noble and wonderful idea. In the long run, however, reducing the amount of packaging we require, buying stuff in bulk instead of one-time use packages, and avoiding plastics as often as possible is much more important than turning 100% of your soda bottles into clever lampshades. There is a reason that ‘Reduce’ comes first in the waste hierarchy (that old mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), because reducing the amount of unnecessary stuff in your life is still, and always will be, the most important aspect of sustainability.
Endocrine Disruptors in the Environment, J. LINTELMANN, A. KATAYAMA, N. KURIHARA, L. SHORE, AND A. WENZEL, 2003
Simple and rapid analysis of endocrine disruptors in liquid medicines and intravenous injection solutions. . ., Kurie Mitani, Shizuo Narimatsu, Fumio Izushi and Hiroyuki Kataoka, 2003
Endocrine disruptors in bottled mineral water: total estrogenic burden and migration from plastic bottles, Martin Wagner and Jörg Oehlmann, Environmental Science and Pollution Research Volume 16, Number 3, 2009
Endocrine Disruption in Fish, David E. Kime, 1998