A world without wasteHow a French start-up is declaring war on garbage production
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if waste were never produced anymore? This is the vision the French Wiithaa start-up lives for. When Barbie shops sell their window decorations, people on the street make furniture, and a flag is transformed into a designer handbag, founders Brieuc Saffré and Nicolas Buttin are behind it. Their ideas promptly won both designers the “Go Green” prize at the European Youth Awards 2013. Read More
You’ve heard about upcycling, right? But did you understand what it really means? Well, we didn’t. That’s why we asked Brieuc Saffré (B) and Nicolas Buttin (N): They are the founders of “Wiithaa“, a French start-up entirely dedicated to upcycling. Wiithaa helps businesses and communities reduce their waste production and thus the costs of waste disposal with one ultimate goal: making waste disappear. Good for the environment, good for the company!
First of all: What does your company name Wiithaa mean?
B: It is the aboriginal name for an Australian bird. This bird is an amazing architect and designer. It collects all kinds of materials for its nest, including wood, plastic and a lot of “garbage”. Then it builds a wonderful home out of it.N: And that is exactly what we want to do at Wiithaa! We want to move away from the typical “sustainable development” idea that is usually about doing less harm – we want to do more good instead.
Upcycling is a bit of a mouthful. I can’t help but think of those plastic bags made from old juice boxes. Or clothes made from scraps of cloth. Is that upcycling? Or still recycling?
B: Yes, that is basically already upcycling. But the idea of upcycling goes much further. The goal of upcycling is to make waste disappear entirely.
"Upcycling is when waste becomes something new, beautiful and useful"
So what then is the exact difference between upcycling and recycling? Recycling makes waste disappear too.
N: Recycling is re-using waste – like using recycled paper to make toilet paper. The toilet paper is not very valuable, but it can still be used. But when old juice boxes are used to create a handbag, the result is much more attractive! The new product is so much more valuable.
B: In other words: Upcycling is when waste becomes something new, beautiful and useful – so that you don’t even consider it to be waste anymore. With a bit of creativity and some good ideas, you can create value out of almost everything! But upcycling can even go much further. It could also be about changing one’s methods or habits. In companies, for instance, it can mean changing the production process in a way that no waste is produced anymore.
N: Recycling on the other hand can get very expensive for a company. In most cases the recycled materials are processed into items that are worth less than the original product. Which is why the term “downcycling” should be used.
Is that why companies come to you?
N: Exactly. They come to us with a waste problem: They are producing a pile of waste and are worried about how this is making them lose money. We advise them how to reduce waste and save money. If you think recycling is expensive, waste disposal is even more so. Companies need to hire containers and arrange for the waste to be taken away.
So Wiithaa is running a kind of corporate consulting firm with a focus on eco-awareness?
N: We mainly do consulting, yes. And to raise awareness of our services, we also organise zero-waste events.
For example, you have cooperated with the Doublet company that produces flags for the Olympic games, football world cups, or for the Tour de France. What did you advise them to do?
B: Doublet had production waste. Textile printing machines don’t always work well, and the colours don’t always come out in the right way. But as you might imagine, the Olympic Committee and FIFA are very strict about colour codes. A company can’t just sell a Union Jack in a darker blue than usual. So many Doublet products were actually going to waste because they couldn’t be sold.
N: When Doublet contacted us, we came up with a way to make attractive bags out of the misprinted flags. The cloth is good quality, so why not make a new product out of it?
This idea seems pretty similar to the one with the juice boxes. But didn’t you say that upcycling is about more than that?
B: Yes it is! For us, that was just the first step. Real upcycling would mean changing the entire production process so that the waste, or the misprints in this case, would not occur in the first place.
Wouldn’t fixing the printing machines be the place to start then?
N: It’s about more than fixing the printing machines. It is about finding new printing methods. This is quite a complicated process, and companies might not be up for this fundamental change right from the start. That’s why we offered Doublet a small improvement first.
You said that you also do zero-waste events...
B: …like when we designed the Barbie shop, yes! People are actually contacting us a lot because of these events.
What was the Barbie event about?
B: That was in October 2013, when Barbie wanted to open up a marketing shop, the “Barbie Factory”, in Paris for 10 days. Are you familiar with this kind of marketing event? They set up a whole shop with furniture and a window display, but once the ten days are over, they close it down and throw everything away. We offered to design the shop for them – the setting, the furniture and the window display – if they’d allow us to re-sell the furniture afterwards. This really didn’t seem like a unique idea to us, it just seemed so obvious!
N: But it was great. For Barbie, it was a good corporate image campaign. For us it had good marketing effects, we earned some money, and people got beautiful and inexpensive furniture.
You once held an upcycling event in a poor quarter of Paris, in Tourcoing. People there turned discarded items into new furniture. You officially worked with the city’s waste management firms on the project, right?
B: Yes, this daylong workshop was officially organised and advertised by the waste management companies and a homeowner’s association. We spent the entire day working with people from the neighbourhood giving old furniture a new lease on life.
See video of the workshop.
There are more complicated things than flags and old furniture. Plastic is a huge problem. How would you suggest, for example, we upgrade plastic bottles?
B: Oh gosh, plastic bottles, just never, ever use them! Just think about the acidification of the ocean. It is a huge problem and is also polluting our drinking water.
N: Yes, really, plastic isn’t smart. Its lifecycle is very limited: you can recycle it a maximum of seven times. This is a typical case of “downcycling”.
"Plastic really isn’t smart: its lifecycle is very limited."
So how to do upcycling?
B: As we mentioned before, upcycling is not just about developing products, but also about offering new services or inventing different production methods. So in this case, the challenge would be to change the beverage distribution system.
If I were one of your customers who worked with plastic bottles, that information would really not help me at all. Who can afford to simply change the entire system! What would you tell me?
B: We would explain to you that in a few years you’ll have a problem if you keep using plastic bottles. They will become far too expensive.
Should I use glass bottles instead?
N: Using glass is better than plastic, as the re- and upcycling of glass is much easier. But switching to glass bottles is just a very first step, of course. We need a much more fundamental change to the drinks system.
B: There is a nice upcycling example concerning glass bottles from a neighbourhood in Cape Town. People found a way to produce concrete out of used glass. It is a substitute for sand, which is difficult to get in adequate amounts. People are now asking the drinks distributors to only deliver glass bottles because this helps them construct their houses. So they are actively changing the beverage distribution system!
For a young company, Wiithaa really has a rich range of experience and expertise. You have only been around since 2012, and won the “Go Green” prize from the European Youth Awards already in 2013. So we are, of course, interested in your experience with founding and launching a social start-up. You are both designers, but Wiithaa must also require a much wider spectrum of qualifications, am I right?
N: Brieuc is a marketing designer; I am more of a systems designer. But for many projects we hire additional people who are experts in the respective field.
How do customers hear about you?
N: We started Wiithaa just two years ago, so at the moment our clients are mainly people who know us personally. Apart from that, we rely entirely on word of mouth. But we’re doing a lot of networking. There is a reason we called Wiithaa an “upcycling network”.
How do you deal with mistakes?
B: We make small mistakes all the time, but we try to learn from them. We like to think of our entrepreneurial project like surfing: You can’t control the wave; you just need to ride it.
What was the best day in Wiithaa’s life?
B: Today! Today is always the best day.
What would you recommend other entrepreneurs to do?
B: Focus on the purpose of your company. Conviction is important, and the people you meet.
N: If you start by taking small steps first, you can grow exponentially. So don’t play on the big TV screens too much; find alternative paths.
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
B: Can I dream? We want to do consulting in China; it’s the factory of the world.
N: And on Wall Street! Convincing the people in the financial sector to change their behaviour is probably the most important task.
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