Creating treasures from trash: upcycling start-ups in Poland
Let’s face it: no one really wants to talk about trash. However, it’s a major problem facing every country in the world, and Poland is no exception. Despite new regulations passed in 2013 encouraging recycling, Poland’s landfills are continuing to fill up at alarming rates. However, where there’s a major problem such as waste, there are start-ups waiting to solve it. One of these is Oddam Odpady, a social platform and soon to be start-up for the upcycling of waste in Poland
In the general hierarchy of sustainable waste processing, there are five points: first, to not generate waste at all, though that’s incredibly difficult for most people; second, to reuse waste (upcycling), then to recycle it, then to collect energy from the disposal of waste, for example by burning it, and finally, to deposit it in a landfill. While of course encouraging people to generate less waste and to recycle is important, most people don’t realize that what they consider waste could easily be converted to something useful (or even profitable) by someone else.
We spoke to Katarzyna Barc of Oddam Odpady (“Waste Classifieds”), the first waste exchange platform in Poland, to learn more about her start-up, the culture of upcycling and making in Poland, as well as how new technologies such as 3D printing can help make more sustainable ecosystems for everyone.
What exactly is Oddam Odpady? Is it a start-up or a social organization?
Oddam Odpady is brand that represents an idea that we wanted to share with Polish society. At the moment, it’s somewhere in between an NGO and a social start-up. When we started almost two years ago, we just wanted to solve a problem for eco educators and designers, so that they could easily find materials for their creations and designs as well as materials that could be used during workshops, educating kids about the ecosystem and sustainable design.
We started the project because I was doing such workshops for different companies and had met other people who also did these kinds of workshops, and I noticed this problem. At the time, the law had just changed to make recycling mandatory (Ustawa śmieciowa 2013), so it was a good time to do something with waste, as there were doubts in society about recycling.
So first, we prototyped the idea on Facebook and other social media, to test and see if people would think about waste as materials that can be shared with other people. It worked, so we built the platform prototype that is now up on our website, and this society around Oddam Odpady began to form. We started holding more and bigger workshops, showing many different ways of upcycling and reusing waste.
Over the past two years, we’ve been cooperating with different centers in Warsaw and holding educational campaigns. This year, I entered the WAW.ac accelerator in order to find other ways to solve the problem of corporate and business waste. We had spoken to many companies and heard the problems they have with their trash, and now we’re working on a new tool in WAW.ac that will be a start-up, not an NGO or a social company. It will allow companies to manage their waste in a smarter way.
Could you tell me how the Oddam Odpady platform works right now?
It’s really easy. If you are searching for a type of waste, you just enter the information about what you need. For example, if you need plastic bottles for your installation or cans for a workshop with children, other people can share their waste with you. On the other hand, if you know you regularly generate certain kinds of packaging or other waste, you can enter that information on the platform, and someone who needs or recycles that kind of waste can take it from you.
We’ve even seen some people send their trash across Poland, because sometimes the waste is rare or the amounts of it are huge.
At the moment, we have over 500 users. It’s a good amount considering that collecting and sharing waste is an unpopular topic, but on the other hand it’s a social innovation. As far as we’ve seen, no one has done this before on a countrywide scale. We have a huge job to do as far as educating people is concerned. People need to know that they can share their waste, because someone else might want to upcycle it and it’s a great way to reduce and reuse waste in general.
In addition, some companies have found us to be a good complement to their corporate social responsibility (CSR) vision.
Is upcycling popular in Poland, or is it still a niche?
Upcycling is not a niche anymore because of the abundance of DIY and palate furniture, as well as TV programs that show that making stuff with your hands is really cool. What I’ve noticed, however, is that many people don’t really understand what upcycling is. It’s often mistaken with just making things out of other things, but that’s not just the case. In upcycling, what’s important is making things out of waste – out of things that are not being used anymore, or are broken. For example, making a basket out of old newspapers you won’t read anymore, because all you could otherwise do with them is to throw them away or recycle - that’s upcycling. It’s often confused for a type of DIY, but it’s different. If a child makes a frame out of plastic spoons that were bought just for that project, that’s not upcycling.
What we do is to show people the whole idea, that upcycling is not only about making, but also about the honesty of a designer or craftsman of what the material they use came from.
Could you tell me a bit about maker culture in Poland as well?
The maker culture in Poland is very strongly developed. I believe it’s because of our communist past, when there was little you could buy and people made things by hand out of whatever was available. It was natural; either they made something themselves, or they wouldn’t have it at all.
I think this spirit has survived from the previous generations. We’ve seen whole families at our workshops that love to create. They visit our workshops and take their children to places where they can learn to make different things. There are also many places in Poland that are fablabs or makerspaces, where where whole communities share their knowledge about the maker movement or crafts, electronics or 3D printing. They prototype different things and even make furniture together. As Oddam Odpady we're involved in a new makerspace project in Warsaw, which is a great opportunity to inspire makers and designers with the idea of reuse and sustainable design.
There are makerspaces all around the world, but in Poland this culture is so highly developed that we don’t even need this special infrastructure - everyone who grew up in a communist-era block knows some guy on the corner who can make things.
So what does 3D printing have to do with upcycling? You recently co-organized an event bringing makers and the 3D printing community together, but I thought upcycling meant using old things, not printing new ones?
Our goal is to show people that broken or used things do not always have to be treated as waste and thrown away. We use 3D printing technology and different crafts to show people how to reuse these things. 3D printing is the perfect technology for making small parts for household appliances that are broken – instead of throwing the whole thing away and buying a new one, you can 3D print those small elements of the broken parts that will give the appliance a longer life.
That’s why we think that 3D printing is a really cool tool for reusing things. You can print parts that will redefine the function of something - for example, you can print a handle to stick on an old glass jar and make it into a mug. Of course, you can also make these parts by hand from wood or metal, but many people we’ve met think they lack the talent or ability to do such things themselves. While this is not true, 3D printing shows that everyone can repair things or reuse them. Even if you can’t design these parts by yourself, there are many people, for example in makerspaces or fablabs, that are able to help you design something or help you find parts online.
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