In this article, Rashvin Pal Singh from Biji-Biji-Initiative, an upcycling business company that champions sustainable living and reuse waste creatively based in Malaysia will give you some useful information to learn fundamentals for upcycling related businesses.

Sara: What are the types of upcycling we can encounter?

Rashvin Pal Singh: From our experience, there are 2 different types of upcycling:

a) Artistic and custom design
This type of upcycling is hugely creativity driven, whereby designers work with unique parts, to create one-off custom pieces. It focuses heavily on capturing the aesthetic & design value of materials. It has a huge role to play in forcing people to think differently, re-imagine how they look at a certain material, and its post-functions. This model tends to be more community centric, and can serve both a B2C and B2B model. However, they both depend heavily on the entrepreneurs creative capabilities, and achieving future business scale may pose a challenge.

b) Production based
The second type of an upcycling business is more production driven. It relies heavily on a steady supply of the same material in volume. Imagine clothes off-cuts from the textiles industry, coffee grounds, wood chips, etc. The core focus here is to capture the tangible material value of the product, and leverage off the sheer quantity and scale this product is available in. There is a huge emphasis on the process efficiency, and marginal cost increases or production mistakes (logistics, supply shortages, manual labour processes, etc) can pose a challenge in profitability and viability of the business as a whole.

Sara: One of the main concerns for upcyclers is to have equipment, what are your recommendations with regards to this matter?

Rashvin Pal Singh: Having access to tools, machinery, and technology is a key enabler in turning waste materials into higher value products, through upcycling. It empowers creativity and allow ideas to be turned into tangible products and solutions. One of our earliest struggles was having access to the production-level machinery we needed to test out our ideas in scale. Our initial journey involved spending hours driving around Kuala Lumpur to just borrow tools and use them for a couple of hours over the weekend. This was very frustrating indeed, as you can imagine 🙂

The key thing to unlocking tools is to identify where the reside within your locality. Universities and polytechnics are a good place to start looking. They typically have access to the different types of tools and machinery needed and can be under-utilised over some calendar periods in the year. Approaching your local universities as potential partners, either as an innovation or sustainability partner, is a great step to gain access to this equipment. It usually starts with a humble visit to the university, and speaking to some of the Faculty Heads, to learn about their efforts, and the types of waste they produced. You will be more than surprised, that many of the lecturers and students there are also exploring different ways to reduce their waste and are looking to innovate new products.

This usually represents itself as a perfect way to kick-start a collaboration, whereby some final year students might also take up the upcycling design challenge as part of the Final Year Projects. Another key partner is having access to tools and machinery are Makerspaces and Creative Hubs within your vicinity. These spaces are designed specifically to support the creative community and serve as a tool-sharing-platform. DIY meet-up groups also usually opens door to more informal tool-sharing communities and finding like-minded people whom are keen to design and make products together.

Sara: Before developing your own Makerspace (Mereka), I understand that you visited several maker spaces across the globe. What are the main patterns across all the maker spaces you visited? What were the points that you like it most from them? What makes your maker space unique?

Rashvin Pal Singh: Yes, our team visited many different makerspaces across the globe, in the US, UK, Portugal, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Singapore and Thailand to name a few. These visits were both part of our own efforts to visit and learn as well as structured programs that promote cross collaborations with different creative spaces. The key patterns we identified within the different Makerspaces were:

a) People & creative community
The ultimate factor behind the success of any of the makerspace we visited came down to the people whom were running it, and their ability to empower and connect with the surrounding creative community. Creating that culture that promotes innovation, collaborative working practices, and strong focus on high quality output, sets the foundational pillars for the makerspace and its creative community thrive.

b) Strategic partnerships
A key ethos and pattern among the best run makerspaces, was its ability to leverage off strategic partnerships with its surrounding stakeholders. Starting from: ● Securing long-term leases with its building owners ● Tools, machinery and design software sponsors ● Sales channels partners, e-commerce, and retailers for favourable packages for its members ● Program partners for various innovation & entrepreneurship driven programs.
The crucial ability to be able to articulate the value the creative community brings to the larger marketplace and using that to create win-win partnerships with larger organisations played a big role in the success of makerspaces in supporting its community to create high-quality products.

c) Empowering locally driven solutions
The most relevant makerspaces had a strong sense of solving locally driven challenges. One of those key challenges was around identifying waste materials based on the surrounding industries and exploring creative ways to upcycle them. This was an area that most makerspace was concerned with in their own locality, and managed to gather the surround creative community to explore new solutions.

Sara: Why is important for upcycling entrepreneurs to consider maker Spaces?

Rashvin Pal Singh: Makerspaces (or also known as FabLab’s) are hugely important for upcoming upcycling entrepreneurs to consider because they help to solve the resource scarcity issue that most new entrepreneurs face. By providing access to industry level tools, equipment and talent, new entrepreneurs are able to move past the initial ideation stage, and complete the first prototypes and move into the final product stage. The environment created in a Makerspace is that of peer-to-peer learning, and constant experimentation, which enables anyone with or without a technical background to learn and have a space to experiment and, as far as possible, making their imagination tangible. By adopting Design Thinking principles, the makerspace is also a highly conducive place to receive user feedback, and making design changes till the final product is ready for market.

Sara: In terms of getting funding for upcycling business, where can entrepreneurs go?

Rashvin Pal Singh: For the most part, funding for an upcycling business is like any other start-up or new business. It involved the entrepreneur to be highly resourceful in coming up with the initial concept and product, then working really hard to secure the initial customers, leveraging highly on their access to networks and partners. One method that is often overlooked is Equity Crowdfunding, as most upcycling business start with a really strong ‘why and so what statement’, it naturally provides for a really strong narrative and brand story. This element is a key part in connecting with potential investors and the general public.
Another approach that could be ideal is to secure a tie-up with the company / industry that we are solving the waste problem. A secured initial contract for a particular company to buy-back their waste in the form of new products (corporate gifts, in-house use, etc) is a great way to get the business off the ground, and also securing future investors. This collaboration really paves the way for a win-win type relationship, whereby both parties are able to harness their individual strengths and solve each-other challenges.

Sara: Which are the main organisations that support upcycling?

Rashvin Pal Singh: Most organisations that support upcycling tend to be in the space of providing recycling solutions, government stakeholders that are concerned with the waste problem, and industries that generate a lot of good quality waste. These organisations tend to be from:
• City councils
• Science, environment and technology government agencies
• Plastic, furniture, fabric, and fashion industries
• Design firms that focus on circular economy solutions
• Innovation labs and product design accelerator labs

Sara: Is there any network for upcycling businesses?

Rashvin Pal Singh: A lot of networks and collaboration in upcycling tend to come through product design, waste management, circular economy, sustainability, and creative conferences. As there are no specific global networks for upcycling businesses, we tend to look at which part is most relevant to the respective upcycling business in the specific regions. Some businesses focus more on the materials collection and processing part, whereas some focus more on converting the materials into higher value consumer products and creating sales channels. Both this upcycling business models require very different types of networks, and skills set to deliver.

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