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Creating Useful Things From Waste, Connecting Upcyclers Across the Globe

A Conversation with Aerin Dunford on Upcycling

Interview by Alexis Schroeder

Upcycling is a term that refers to the practice of making things that are more beautiful, durable, or useful from what was previously considered waste. It is a practice that has begun to take place all over the world in many different environments and local contexts and in some places, has existed as a tradition for many generations. Aerin Dunford is steward of the Upcycling Initiative of The Berkana Institute—an organization committed to building healthy and resilient communities. In this interview, we chat with Aerin about the ways in which upcyclers are redefining and reimagining what we think of as “waste” and how the upcycling movement fits into larger waves of social change we’re beginning to see with regard to human behavior in the 21st century.

Watch a short video with Aerin Dunford on upcycling, creativity, and systems change here.

NPi: Can you tell me about yourself and the project?

AD: I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. I left home to go to college when I was 18 and never really settled down… Oaxaca is my first nesting place, the first place where I’ve rooted. I spent some time in New England, but mostly this is a new for me—being in one place and working on connecting with that place.

I went back to school to get my master’s at the School for International Training about five years ago. Even before then I was becoming interested how organizations work—how we hold them as a society and what role they play. That’s how I came to Berkana. For me, Berkana was the perfect fit. It felt like this organization had been created for my passions, the way that I think about things, the things I’m interested in.

The Upcycling Initiative came about as an idea in 2006 while I was traveling around the world, visiting the different learning centers through the Berkana Exchange. Manish Jain from Shikshantar (The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development) in India arrived at something called the Art of Learning Centering gathering in Oaxaca very passionate about upcycling and this idea of dealing with our own waste, seeing how we could begin using waste as a resource. By upcycling, we mean the practice of making things that are more beautiful, durable, or useful from our waste.

We started to see that upcycling was happening at different learning centers in many different geographic areas around the world. While I was off seeing what learning centers were up to and writing my master’s thesis, Berkana got a grant to do a virtual space where we would connect the people within the Berkana Exchange who were upcycling. We wanted to give upcyclers a virtual space to share their work, ideas, and challenges.

I was quite passionate about upcycling from the beginning… There wasn’t a moment when I thought, I’m an upcycler and I’m going to make this one of my things! [Laughs] But the more I stepped into my role as a practitioner, I became the natural choice for the person to steward the virtual space.

NPi: What does it mean to upcycle? What is the actual work?

AD: It feels different wherever you are. That’s the whole trans-local concept. It’s not the same in Soweto, South Africa, as it is in India. It’s not the same in Mexico as it is in Brazil. It also depends on the circle of people you’re practicing with. In Soweto, where I learned a lot of the things that I do in terms of upcycling, it feels like a source of income. People aren’t so concerned with the actual use of their own waste. There’s actually a lot of use of purchased materials that look like garbage. Some people call this “boutique upcycling.” That’s fine, it’s a source of income, some people do it this way. But in India for instance, there’s a very long tradition of upcycling. Kabaad se Jugaad is a term in Hindi that means looking for waste to fix things. People really work with principles like we use what we have and we don’t need to go out and get more stuff to make things work. In Mexico, it varies. This is a question to think about: Is it just for economic well being that we upcycle? For some of us, we upcycle because we have a vision of a world that we’d like to see happen. 

NPi: What do you mean by waste?

AD: To me, it’s anything that’s going to go to the dump, that’s going to be thrown out of our cities and communities and seen as something totally not useful. It could be anything. If you really start to think about the kinds of things people throw away, it can be overwhelming. There’s electronics, clothing, food, packaging (packaging is a big one). Then there’s industrial waste. Think about a factory or a business and the amount of waste that comes out of those places! Printed material, for example. People print way too much usually. Phonebooks! It can feel daunting. But if you shift your thinking and start to think of waste as a resource, then it feels like a big opportunity. Think about all of the creativity and diversity in that gigantic pile.

First, waste is a resource. Second, it’s the most abundant resource we have in the world right now. So there’s no need for competition. I think of natural resources and all of the angst and bloodshed that competition over natural resources causes when natural resources are among us. A lot of the conflict is due to competition and a feeling of scarcity. There’s too little oil, too little wood, too little water… But here we have this resource and there’s so much of it. What a good opportunity to practice being non-competitive. There’s an element of competition in the upcycling community when it comes to the economic side of things, people have similar ideas and products, but we don’t need to fight with each other.

NPi: The Berkana Institute speaks about creating and supporting healthy, resilient communities. What does a healthy, resilient community mean to you?

AD: It comes back to the trans-local idea. Trans-local is an idea rooted in other writing and thought leadership, but in 2006, when we gathered as the Exchange community in Oaxaca, that’s when we started to use the term. Trans-local means that people work in a local context, connect to their local contexts, and yet they aren’t working in isolation. So people are connected across geographic and cultural boundaries in a network of solidarity, supporting each other with ideas. It’s very different from the model of replication. In many NGOs, replication is the MO. This worked here in Brazil, so it’s got to work in India! Let’s just pick a model out of Brazil and transfer it over here and plop it down in a totally different context!

Given our theoretical base in the trans-local idea, it’s hard to say what a healthy and resilient community looks like, to describe it in a physical sense; it looks different wherever you are. That said, I think that there are principles of a healthy, resilient community that show up no matter where you are. A few things come to mind. One is healthy flows of communication—people know how to express themselves, and there’s a sense that information is flowing freely. Belonging is another big theme—a sense that I am part of this. That’s something that’s missing in our communities right now.

In terms of the Upcycling Initiative and the work I do with food sustainability—a healthy and resilient community is about all of the things a community needs to be self-sufficient. We don’t rely on third-party, outside people to bring us our food or what we need, and we handle our own waste. On the input side, there’s sustainability and self-reliance. On the output side, we don’t have a negative impact on other communities. That’s a huge problem with many communities in the West. They ship their waste to who knows where, sending it off for some other country to deal with.

There’s a piece of this work that Meg Wheatley did early on around a new kind of leadership… Meg’s idea is that a leader is anyone who wants to help. I would change this a bit to say “a leader is anyone who wants to step forward at this time.”

Another image that sticks with me is something that came out of a World Café session I did with Tim Merry, one of the early participants of the Berkana Exchange. He called it leadershift. The image is of a circle of people. If we’re standing in a circle and we’re all in tune with what we have to give, when we feel that it’s our time to give something, pulling from what our strengths are, we step into the middle. When we realize that we’ve given what we can give, we step back. It’s this constant shifting dance of people stepping into the middle to offer their leadership and knowing when it’s time to step back out. That feels like a quality of a healthy and resilient community—changing our ideas around power and leadership, the way we organize.

NPi: What is the larger shift of social change happening that you believe you’re a part of?

AD: As a planet, I think we’re in a murky zone. Some of us see that changes are starting to happen, for example, with the two loops theory [watch a short video of Deborah Frieze explaining the two loops theory here]. Yes, we’re starting to see new pioneering initiatives and efforts crop up. Some of us have been seeing them for a long time now. A lot us are really fixated on the crashing of the old system, the dying of the old system. Much of this depends on where you put your attention. There’s always so much going on at the same time, not unlike upcycling. We can see waste as this enormous problem that we have created as human beings and it’s just terrible, we’re such a bad species! Or we can see it as an incredible resource.

I think the creativity within the upcycling community is starting to explode. Creativity is something we’re going to need if we’re going to make it through this time in a strong, resilient, positive way. As human beings, if we don’t start to realize our creative potential rather than destructive potential, we may just continue down the downward spiral.

Tim Merry helped me see this—I think we all dance around it to some degree—we walk around saying how we’re to blame for all of this terrible stuff going on in the world, and that kind of attitude, where does it get us? It doesn’t help uplift the human race, nor any other species of animal, nor the planet. Social change must mean recognizing that we’ve been given the opportunity to either make things better or not. This has been a lesson for me personally, too. I don’t need to fix everything; I just need to start being more open to the question of how do we step into action and make the world a better place.

NPi: What’s something you’ve learned through this work that has surprised you?

AD: It’s inevitable that in this work you start to learn about yourself… Some of the things I’ve learned about myself have been surprising. [Laughs] Some of them very hard, hard to manage, hard to figure out. This tendency to want to fix things is something I knew I had in me, but what surprised me is that there’s a new way of approaching it. Maybe things don’t need to be fixed, maybe we can just be with what is… It’s still hard because it’s my nature to want to make things for better, untangle things, take on the responsibility of someone else’s experience. But I’ve just practiced being in some very difficult situations where I felt a real tendency to want to make them better.

Another thing that’s surprised me is just how deep my relationships are with people in this circle, in the Berkana field. I didn’t have any expectation about that when I joined Berkana. Because I traveled so much when I was younger, I never really took the time to create a family of choice, to choose the people that I had around me. For instance, I met my partner in life through this network. I never thought that would happen. Although that’s personal, it’s a part of this work as well. On some level, all of those boundaries between the personal and professional break down. I think that’s surprising and beautiful. I feel so fulfilled and gifted by this network of people. I feel like that’s what we also need in this world, as we work to make it better. 

NPi: How would you invite people to get involved?

AD: I think we need to figure out how the Upcycling Portal will become useful to upcycling practitioners rather than a burden. I would love to have more conversations about this with people. How can this virtual tool serve you in your local work on the ground?

Upcycling is a wave we could miss. As a practice, it’s just starting to crest. I’d like to ride that wave, not in an exploitative way. This is another interesting example of the model of networked communities of practice. I can already see how upcycling can be a system of influence, what that would look like: people dealing with their own waste and using it to make this world better.

To learn more about networked communities of practice and systems of influence, we suggest “Lifecycle of Emergence: Taking Social Innovation to Scale.”

How to Get Involved:

Join the global upcycling community and share your ideas/thoughts by visiting the Upcycling Portal here. Learn more about the Upcycling Initiative here.


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