Have you ever heard of “upcycling?” I have, mostly because I live in San Francisco. SFers are big on sustainable upcycling. I didn’t always know what it was, but never one to be left out, I always pretended that I knew what it was. For a good six months, I was pretty sure it was a sort of X Games for the unicycle set. Half-pipes, really steep hills, empty in-ground swimming pools. You get the idea, it was all very Lords of Dogtown.
At it turns out, I was wrong. “Upcycling” is when you take something crappy and make it into something less crappy. For record, I still think my version is better. As a term, the word “upcycle” or “upcycling” is linguistically unnecessary. As I sit here in this coffee shop, I can think of at least two synonyms for “upcycling” that mean the same thing and predate it.
The first (and most obvious) is “recycle.” From Wikipedia:
“Recycling is a process to change (waste) materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution (from landfilling) by reducing the need for “conventional” waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to plastic production.“
“Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.”
They sound pretty similar to me. Similar in the same way that Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter were similar: Exactly the same and no amount of orange kimono or tousled of blond hair is ever going to convince you otherwise.
“But ‘recycle’ doesn’t have the same panache as ‘upcycle,'” protest the Upcyclists (Upcyclists are always using words like panache). “It’s too ‘Smokey the Bear.'”
Is”Upcycle” just the upcycling of the word “recycle?” No, it isn’t, because there was already a word for that. Recycling with Style already exists. It was invented in 1985 and was named after its first and greatest pioneer:
MacGyvering is upcycling against all odds; like using a paperclip and a ballpoint pen to bring about the end of the Soviet Union.
From a semiotics perspective, the landscape of taking something old and improving it is pretty well covered. But what about when you take something terrible and turn it into something even crappier? Like what Johnny Depp has done to his career post Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:the remix. Is it Downcycling? Bieber-izing? Zombiefying? A Kardashia-morphosis?
The reason I’m asking is because, on a recent trip to home, I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. I have a friend of a friend who likes to say “The only truth is beauty.” Well, there is no truth here.
There along Elm St in Milford, NH lived the ghosts of franchise past. All of which have been sutured back together, like Frankensteins’ monster, into something pathetically yearning to be loved. On the left, my childhood. On the right, an abomination.
Like a teenage boy whose Axe body spray still lingers in the air long after he’s left the room, the iconic 90’s suburban franchise architecture lingers on, clinging to the fringe of the cultural landscape, invading your senses and giving you a headache.
Taco Bell is no “episode of the madeleine,” and I’m no Marcel Proust, but I had my own involuntary reaction to this Remembrance of Things Past. And it was the kind normally reserved for those occasions when you’ve eaten one too many under cooked Gorditas.