Upcycling – a new perspective on waste in social innovation

Charlotte Wegener, Marie Kirstejn Aakjær

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The purpose of this paper is to introduce ‘upcycling’ – a well-known term within design practice – to the field of social innovation. Persistently, we take resources, place them into valued constellations, and, after a while, consider them trash and dispose of them – we value the new and not the old. A sustainable alternative to this sequence is upcycling − a word created by a mix between ‘upgrading’ (adding value) and ‘recycling’ (reusing). In the simplest terms, upcycling is the practice of reassessing waste and transforming it into something valuable. A basis for upcycling is the notion of sustainable consumption, and the main idea is to revitalize old material by placing it into new constellations and by suggesting new ways of using it while, at the same time, keeping its essence intact as a main value-adding feature. In this paper, we ask: How does this line of thinking contribute to complex social challenges, in order to rethink and handle ‘waste’ in its broadest terms?
To ground the theorising of what we term ‘social upcycling’, we provide snapshot cases from our own research in Denmark and others from around the world we have collected from websites and blogs. The cases illustrate the diversity of actors, activities and materiality involved in social upcycling processes. Together with key insights from the fields of social innovation, co-design and upcycling, we outline a new promising area of social innovation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Comparative Social Work
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • innovation
  • creative processes

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