Cash for Trash: Innovative Companies Profitably Upcycle, Recycle and Reduce Waste

Upcycling is good for business AND the environment

Upcycled bag from TerraCycle

Turning worm poop into fertilizer was TerraCycle’s first big idea. Then they transformed discarded drink containers into consumer bling, which made them a world-recognized leader in this hot, new trend of “upcycling”. Upcycling is the conversion of waste destined for landfills into new products of better quality or a higher environmental value. TerraCycle upcycles unwanted trash into messenger bags, notebooks, and the list goes on . . .

“Buy low, sell high” is the underlying business model for upcycling companies such as TerraCycle. They buy raw source materials (waste) at low cost and charge premium prices for their fashionable, environmentally-friendly upcycled products. But that’s not all. The upcycling companies’ business partners also benefit because their scrap waste is being reused. Instead of having to pay someone to haul their waste away, someone is actually paying for it and taking it off their hands.

The good news for the environment is that as more trash is upcycled, less trash is ending up in landfills. It also lowers the consumption of raw materials, air pollution from waste incineration, and water pollution from leaking landfills.

The upcycling trend is doing something more . . . it is raising people’s awareness about the growing trash problem and motivating them to change their behavior. For example, Recyclebank does this by educating and rewarding their customers for recycling. Terracycle does this by setting up collection centers to make it easier for communities and schools to recycle.

Upcycling is a growing industry

TerraCycle and Recyclebank aren’t the only companies coming up with innovative –and profitable — ideas for making stylish, environmentally-friendly products out of trash. Learn more about them and other cutting-edge upcycling companies below.

  • TerraCycle, Inc. is a worldwide leader in the collection and reuse of consumer packaging and products.
  • Recyclebank rewards people for taking everyday green actions with discounts and deals from local and national businesses.
  • Playback Clothing transforms trash like plastic bottles and clothing scraps into great looking eco-clothing.
  • IceStone makes high design surfaces from recycled glass instead of quarried stone.
  • Preserve makes attractive toothbrushes and kitchenware from recycled plastic like yogurt containers.

Criticism of upcycling

Critics argue that upcycling and recycling only postpones the inevitable – the waste will still eventually end up in landfills. It is better to reduce waste to begin with to than upcycle waste after it is generated. “Zero Waste” advocates want products that are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and reused. They want people to change their behavior and businesses to change their practices so that less waste is created and any discarded material is used as a resource for others.

How about “Zero Waste”?

Although it remains challenging to get consumers reduce their waste and recycle, many businesses are already discovering there is money to be made with zero waste programs. According to GreenBiz, by finding ways to reduce its waste, Wal-Mart has cut the cost to haul waste to landfills in California by over 80%. General Motors has earned $2.5 billion from recycling over the past four years. Kraft has achieved zero waste at 36 food plants around the world and, at some locations, use manufacturing byproducts to create energy. Companies in almost any industry and of every size are seeing significant savings by reducing, reusing, or recycling materials. Besides being environmentally friendly, zero waste initiatives save money by cutting out waste and streamlining production.

Is one waste strategy better than the other?

It seems that almost any waste strategy – upcycling, recycling, reusing, or reducing materials – can lead to significant savings and even boost revenues. This is clearly good for business. When it comes to the environment, however, there is a bit of a debate about which waste strategy is best. As mentioned earlier, zero waste advocates argue that any upcycled or recycled waste still eventually ends up in landfills. Thus, it is better to not create the waste to begin with.

Yet even if upcycled products do eventually end up in landfills, upcycling companies like Terracycle and Recyclebank are succeeding in raising people’s awareness of the waste problem and motivating them to change their behavior and recycle more. Plus, the new upcycling market is incenting companies to develop new environmentally-friendly products and services. While upcycling isn’t as green as zero waste, it is changing how we view and what we do with trash.

What do you think?

  • Is zero waste the only environmentally responsible waste strategy?
    • Or is upcycling a good development for the environment too?


  • Is the solution to the waste problem going to come from corporate America and zero waste programs?
    • Or does a lasting solution require consumers to change their behavior with regard to trash?


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10 Responses to Cash for Trash: Innovative Companies Profitably Upcycle, Recycle and Reduce Waste

  1. This is an excellent, thoughtful piece and I plan to share it! These are issues that really need more discussion to help the info sink deeper into the public psyche over time. Change in individual behavior and corporate leadership for waste reduction/reuse are all vital!

    I recently noticed with pride that my recycle bin is much more full than my garbage bin. Two or three years ago, we were less conscious about what could be recycled — and now, more packaging is recyclable. Progress!

  2. Shi-Ling Hsu says:

    To critics: Postponing disposal is better than going straight to the landfill, is it not?

  3. Pooja says:

    I enjoyed reading this article.
    The quintessential driver for all man-made things that are good or bad is “human behavior”. To a large degree human behavior can be molded by the right set of incentives and disincentives. The ultimate solution is zero waste and change in human behavior but that’s going to be a long arduous journey. In the interim, upcycling is a great concept.
    When it comes to changing human behavior, one needs to sow the seeds for recycling , upcycling and zero waste in young minds at a very early age. Schools can play a huge role here in making these concepts not only “good things to do” but fun and cool as well. More than schools, the internet, facebook, twitter all can contribute to the thought movement for creating a sustainable environment.
    With the right inventions, social awareness, popular culture and incentives/ disincentives we can perhaps someday hope to achieve a world that produces less waste. Till then there may be great opportunities in the upcycling world.

  4. Kay says:

    A fine and balanced article. I like all approaches myself. We compost, recycle, and try to purchase recycled materials.

  5. Ben says:

    Up-cycling reminds me of a documentary I saw in college in the 1970s about a group of settlers on a Vermont commune. They jury-rigged a windmill to pump water from their well, using mostly coat hangers, cardboard and chewing gum (sugar-free). But they needed one special part to convert the continuous motion of the wind to the reciprocating motion required for a pump. This part they found in a junkyard: an “old rusty automobile crankshaft purchased for only 5 cents.” I recall admiring their ingenuity but thinking that old rusty crankshafts were only going to be available for 5 cents in junkyards as long as smokestacks were belching smoke in Detroit (a mid-western city with a large auto industry in the 1970s).

    If I were to weigh every bag of trash and every bundle of recycling that I carry out of my home in one year and compare their total weight to the amount of up-cycled material I expect to bring into my home in that year, I would be forced to conclude that up-cycling will dent a pretty small fraction of the MATERIAL in my neighborhood landfill (which I assume is a hop, skip and 500 miles from my home).

    There is also a complex calculus to be done regarding the LABOR it takes to hand-pick a pound of material to up-cycle, and the number of dollars and kilowatt-hours to ascribe to each hour of that labor (including the modest fraction disbursed for the laborers’ health insurance premiums and the taxes they pay for valuable government services such as defense, entitlements, enforcement of environmental regulations, Congressional salaries, graft, etc.). It daunts the daylights out of MY little brain.

    In summary I suspect that our species, like many of its members (me, me, me!) does need to go on a DIET. Now gosh darn! We just hate to hear dour admonitions like “If you wanna be thin, don’t put it in.” Quick, somebody hand me a rationalization!

    So…having popped the balloon of every small child reading this, I will offer a change (or glimpse) of heart. A society where a little girl can set up a lemonade stand and defray 1% of her parents’ cost in supporting her that day…is the same society where she or one of her friends is going to start a Fortune 500 company some day (hopefully a greenish one). A kid who weaves his mom an Easter hat from banana peels and a soda jug just might make it to Washington or Brussels or Kyoto and make a difference. (His first stop will probably be the corner store for a bottle of shampoo.)

    If we are going to tackle a problem as big as saving this lousy old blob of magma, saltwater, butterflies and dreams, then symbols matter, because alongside willpower, inspiration matters. Getting a little choked-up matters. YES, I bought my sweetheart one of those stupid purses made of soda-can flip-top lids. And my niece and nephew proudly sport backpacks conjured from dis-used 50-kg rice bags. OF COURSE it’s silly – in dollars and pounds and mega-joules and just about anything else you can measure. But it’s a statement. And it’s a start. And, as they say…hey, you never know.

  6. Orin Y. O'Brien says:

    I am sending this on to many friends, quite a few of whom already recycle and try to use less.
    This is a great article! Congratulations, Vreni!

  7. Pingback: Cash for Trash: Innovative Companies Profitably Upcycle, Recycle and Reduce Waste | Hipcycle

  8. This is a very well balanced and thought provoking post.
    It’s great to actually see companies making money from upcycled/recycled products to this extreme. The more companies that are able to succeed in this, the more trendy it becomes and ultimately more environmentally conscience.
    Saying that however, I believe a combination of both should exist – upcycle the waste that is out there, and be mindful of what you purchase, consume and waste. Wouldn’t it be great if one day all products on the market were “green”? Stranger things have happened!

    Andrea Graham
    Halton Region

  9. Adam says:

    Your article leads us to an important conclusion: It’s not “zero waste” OR “upcycling” — they’re intertwined. “Zero Waste” is a philosophy that we should first minimize waste and then find ways to repurpose the waste we can’t eliminate and either re-use, recycle, reprocess, or…upcycle.

    “One person’s waste is another person’s treasure” …I would hear in my house growing up as we trawled the neighborhood on “junk day”. Today, that could not be more true. The market economy will sort out what the breakeven point for upcycling vs. recycling vs. landfilling something. The recycled aluminum, paper and glass markets in the U.S. are already quite evolved. For now, I associate upcycling with “artisinal” activities such as creating drinking glasses from wine bottles ( or handbags from Capri Sun pouches ( As the markets for waste in general become deeper and more accessible to the masses, upcycling will probably become more sophisticated and move into the mainstream as a practice that supports production of mass-produced items in addition to the handicrafts that we see today.

  10. Gregory David says:

    Up cycling: Good for business, uses waste as source material, what could be wrong with that? The fact that the product is still waste?

    The amount of waste pollution that we are producing is growing so fast that it is the largest threat to life as we know it; worse than war, global warming and nuclear waste. The cycle of life works by building up and breaking down natural organic materials and all life is adapted to the speeds of those processes. But with the advent of plastics and the manufacture of chemical compounds not found in the natural world, there has been a drastic change. The human race is consuming the resources of the planet so fast that using the word unsustainable as a descriptor is a euphemism. We have lost close to thirty percent of the the worlds biodiversity since 1970. In the past if humans depleted the resources in a given area they would just move on, their pollution eventually biodegraded into the building blocks for sustaining life and the area recovered.

    Now there are so many of us that there is nowhere to move to and we are forced to live on our garbage dumps, but those garbage dumps are now filled with chemicals and compounds that are lethal and of course plastics that will not break down for many hundreds of thousands of years. But what those plastics and chemicals are doing on the oceans is the biggest threat. Plastics mostly don’t degrade, but they are being broken up into the smaller and smaller pieces. The estimate for the weight of plastic in the Pacific gyre is one hundred million tons and that’s just in one area. I don’t know how much plastic is in the all the oceans but it must be many billions of tons. The oceans have become the final great garbage dump, all life in the ocean is consuming plastic and destructive chemical waste; from whales, to birds, to plankton with hugely detrimental consequences and next to nothing is being done to address what is bring about an end to life as we know it. Kind of puts the problem into perspective doesn’t it? Are you frightened of plastic yet?

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