We’ve all heard of recycling – taking waste, like paper, and turning it into new unexciting material, like more paper.

But a new trend gaining momentum internationally is that of up-cycling – converting waste or useless materials, like sawdust, into completely different and creative things of greater value, like molded designer furniture.

The result is quite literally a new industry taking abundant rubbish, and turning it into a treasure trove for green business ideas. It’s not just environmentally responsible, it can create jobs.

Waste is everywhere.

It’s estimated that 11 million metric tons of floating plastic covers an area of nearly 13 million km2 of ocean. Find that number hard to process? That’s enough rubbish to cover the whole of southern and central Africa. As for southern Africans, we produce between one and three kilos of waste per person, per day.


Trash is cash

Turning waste into fashion.

Looptworks (2009) is a US company personifying the up-cycling trend. Partners Gary Peck and Jim Stutts were inspired by sustainable manufacturing methods in the apparel industry, but wanted to take it further by forming a closed loop manufacturing process – and they’ve done it through up-cycling. Looptworks uses textile manufacturing excess as source material for its own accessories, gear and apparel.


As an example, Looptworks gathers leftover wetsuit material destined for the dump and turns it into a $30 laptop sleeve. And, because production is limited based on available materials, items are more appealing to consumers and can command higher prices.

The business employs 12 full- and part-time staff and creates nearly 50 retail offerings.

How to make up-cycling successful

Make it innovative, like a pet’s bed made of a cushion in a banged up old suitcase (around $70 online).


An appealing space. No one wants to rummage in a junk shop – make the space clean, open, organised and fresh looking.

Look to history. Before manufacturing became as cost-effective as it is to make new material, fabrics were broken back to fibre and re-spun into new material. Even Henry Ford up-cycled, using the crates car parts were shipped in as vehicle floorboards.

More ideas on up-cycling

Check out how these businesses are up-cycling. By Jennifer Wang

  • Company: Equator Coffees and Teas
  • What they up-cycle: Coffee waste to grow protein-rich mushrooms in developing countries
  • Brilliance: Promoting sustainable farming – and good coffee
  • Visit: www.equatorcoffees.com
  • Company: Hello Rewind
  • What they up-cycle: Customers’ favourite old t-shirts are turned into laptop sleeves; profits help sex-trafficking victims
  • Brilliance: A self-sustaining social enterprise that capitalises on a sentimental, one-of-a-kind product
  • Visit: www.hellorewind.tumblr.com


  • Company: TerraCycle
  • What they up-cycle: Trash to make new retail products
  • Brilliance: Turning trash into treasure, literally
  • Visit: www.terracycle.com
  • Company: Patagonia
  • What they up-cycle: Fleece made of plastic bottles
  • Brilliance: Spawning a clean manufacturing movement among outdoor-clothing manufacturers
  • Visit: www.patagonia.com


Tracy Lee Nicol
Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.