Turning city's trash into treasure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


Recycling our waste is not enough - we need to go a step further and turn it into something better, say a group of Hong Kong 'upcyclers'.

'Upcycling' is the name given to the process of taking trash and using it to create something of higher value without reducing it to raw material, as is done in recycling, thereby conserving energy and reducing waste.

Examples include light shades made out of vinyl banners, handbags made out of taxi seats and even floating candles made from eggshells.

But proponents say there is more to upcycling than just environmental benefits. Some even see it as a way of engaging with disconnected communities in Hong Kong, by including different sectors of society in the 'production line'.

'Recycling is actually 'downcycling' - perfectly good objects are mashed up and reduced into primary substances before being made into lesser goods. More energy ends up being used in the process of recycling,' said Polytechnic University Professor Siu King-chung, who leads workshops and classes on 'turning waste into treasure' at the university and the Community Museum Project.

The term 'upcycling' first came to prominence in the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Dr Michael Braungart.

While the term was coined in the West, Siu said upcycling was something Hong Kong people had done for decades, taking inspiration from skilled craftspeople in Sham Shui Po.

'I met an old man while doing research on Hong Kong's traditions in craftsmanship, who for years has been using discarded wood on the street, unwanted metal bits from garages and old car tyres to build completely upcycled wooden carts. And I thought, 'why couldn't we do it too?'' he said.

Apart from being environmentally friendly, designers hope to use upcycling as a way to engage local communities and promote locally produced goods.

'The point is to try building a self-sustainable community,' says designer and upcycler Kay Chan Wan-ki, whose products include eggshell candles which float on water, light shades made from old vinyl banners and coffee tables made from clothes hangers. Chan works with NGOs to make use of the skills of people they support.

'Of course, being able to make money is good,' she said. 'But we are doing this for more than money, more than being environmentally conscious, which should actually be a criteria for any design. There are important social benefits in this whole concept.'

She said the best thing was to see the community come together, from collecting unwanted material, to designing and producing the product locally, and finally marketing the finished products. She found that there was a market for these kinds of goods, as 'people like the idea that things are locally produced and designed, and, of course, that things are green, environmentally friendly.'

'Good designs should be sustainable,' agrees Billy Potts of Handsome Co, the designer and producer of 'taxi-bags', which are leather bags made out of old taxi seats and seat belts. Potts said while upcycling was a good idea, Hong Kong should still focus on how to design, produce and use products in the most efficient way, to reduce waste.

Wu Mei-lin, co-ordinator at the Hong Kong Women Workers' Association, which is involved in upcycling, said their collaboration with Polytechnic University, which started in 2009, had developed into some long-term partnerships with designers. Even more important was the hope it gave to all those involved.

'I see how designers are given the hope of seeing their designs come to life, while our seamstresses have their skills recognised. Both designers and women at our association have their worlds opened up to see that what people see as 'waste' can become with a bit of creativity,' Wu said.