One man’s trash is (sometimes) another man’s treasure: what if this was true for plastic bottles? Is upcycling an efficient answer to the plastic problem?
From a soda bottle to a solar lamp
Upcycling is a way to reuse, transform, or recycle waste in order to add value to it. Many upcycling projects are DIY (Do It Yourself), with the aim of making jewelry, plant pots and other daily items. This approach is beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, it gives renewed life to an item (therefore delaying its arrival into landfill), and secondly, it subverts the need to buy a new item for the same purpose, thus avoiding the production of more waste in the long run.
But what if upcycling could also improve the daily life of the world’s poorest citizens? This outcome is the objective of MyShelter foundation’s project: Liter Of Light. In many shanty towns, the houses lack windows, posing a multitude of safety issues.
A simple workaround to this problem is to install a bottle of water through a hole in the roof. By fixing the bottle into the roofs, the sun’s rays are dispersed, offering a constant, multidirectional light flow into the house, unrelated to the position of the sun. Bleach is added to the mix in order to stop algae from growing, or indeed any other micro-organisms that would reduce its ability to disperse light. Overall, each device lasts for around five years.
As it is, the bottle brings light, comparable to a 50 watts light bulb, for free (the price for the bottle installation is $3).
This project has brought light into windowless homes at a very affordable price… But is it clean? Almost. Using bleach, a pollutant, means that the solution is not entirely eco-friendly. Nevertheless, the amount used in the bottles is negligible compared to the consumption of bleach in developed countries. Just as an example, France consumes 7.2L of bleach every second.
What about night time?
As the bottles only disperse the light from the sun, they are only useful during the day. For night lighting, the foundation has developed the LightBox, a solar bottle. In the LightBox, a miniature photovoltaic panel is linked to a LED bulb inside the bottle. A captor is then installed on top of the panel, so that the lamp automatically turns on when there is no light.
An entirely “Open Source” project
The objective of the Liter of Light project is to make light accessible for as many households as possible, and tutorials and guides on how to make these light bottles are available on the internet. Volunteers from the association visit villages in developing countries and help the locals to create their own bottles.
A drop in the ocean… with a lot of added value
Compared to the sheer quantity of waste produced daily, the amount of upcycling seems negligible, and it is difficult to quantify the number of items upcycled from waste products, given that it is mostly carried out by individuals for their own use. Yet this practice seems to be becoming very popular, with a recent study showing that 66% of the Americans upcycle, with 21% of them upcycling frequently.
Generally speaking, this tendency – not limited to plastics – is rapidly increasing: whether it is through the rise of new brands such as Hipcycle or Airpaq, or the rise of the word “upcycling” on Etsy (a marketplace specialised in arts and crafts) of 275% between 2010 and 2011. Looking beyond the environmental aspect, such initiatives offer an extra advantage for producers: the almost null price of raw material, considered as waste, without any commercial value, which enables producers to focus finance on labour.
In the case of Liter of Light, the project also encompasses a societal dimension by substantially improving the life of its end users. But what is the real impact of such projects on the crisis of polluting plastic? Let’s look at numbers: there are currently over 800 million people living in shantytowns, and 480 billion bottles are sold every year in the world. If we gave a bottle to each one of those 800 million people, we would reuse 0.16% of the bottles produced in one year. The environmental impact of Liter of Light really is a drop in the ocean. But the project still proves that a little bit of innovation, with little means, can bring real societal change at a reduced cost.