Upcycling vs. Recycling: What’s The Difference?

We all know it’s common sense to recycle. As consumers, we have decisions to make every day involving what we buy, where it comes from, and where it goes once we’re done with it, and I think it’s fair to say most of us would prefer that a cup, bottle, or newspaper was recycled rather than ending up in landfill.

But recycling is a big term, and involves a lot of different things. Often, due to a number reasons, a lot of what we sort out and put into our recycling bins still ends up in landfills. Polystyrene products like yogurt containers or cd cases are recycled less than one percent of the time. And plastic soda bottles can’t be recycled at plants more than two-thirds of the time. Our clothes, if clean enough, can be turned into rags, but those often end up in landfills as well after just one or two more uses.

So what’s the deal? Why are our recycling programs so seemingly ineffective?

The answer, as it often does, comes down to money. If the cost to recycle a good into new repurposed material is greater than simply buying new materials, a company has no motivation to use recycled goods. If a material needs to be shipped long distances to be recycled, it often isn’t worth the extra money. And the prices of recycled materials goes up and down all the time based on countless market influences which are not in any one organization’s control.

It can feel frustrating and disempowering to look into these bleak realities of our material goods and where they go. But there is a resistance building.

A better way.

Most recycling can be referred to as a process called “downcycling”. This means that the original product is transformed back into raw materials that are of low value and still generally have a short life span. It’s better than ending up in a landfill, but not by much.

The other half of recycling is a process called “upcycling”. Upcycling is defined as any process that takes used goods and repurposes them into a better product, or at least one of equal quality to the original product. You could simply put your newspaper in the recycling (which would be downcycling) or, you could fold the newspaper into an effective pot for plants that can later be planted directly into the ground, creating an entirely new value and use for that material.

Upcycling lets us think creatively and innovate new methods to reuse and repurpose our goods. It has applications that extend from your home to much larger industrial uses, and even for artistic purposes such a sculptures and collages.

Convert an old door you’ve replaced into a coffee table. Build a chair out of the old skis in your shed. Use a ketchup container to efficiently dispense pancake batter onto your griddle. Hold on to your old jam jars to use as drinking glasses. The possibilities are endless, and inventing new ways to utilize our goods is a fun process that everyone can be involved in.

A revolution is underway.

Before the 1950’s, and still in many developing nations around the world, upcycling was the norm. Families simply didn’t have the money to constantly be buying new products, and a global supply chain with imported products and materials simply didn’t exist. The second half of the 20th century changed all that, and today we have a highly integrated, massive system of product production that seems to make any item accessible.

But this excess of access has led us to levels of consumption that simply are unsustainable, and people are beginning to change their ways.

Across communities around the globe, there are people who are taking on upcycling, with a mission to show the world what we can achieve through repurposing materials and using our imagination. There are countless vendors of art and goods on the website Etsy specializing in only upcycled products, and a new generation of conscientious companies are choosing to source their products from producers who upcycle their materials. These individuals and companies are helping to shift the paradigm of how and what we buy. As consumers increasingly want products that don’t harm the environment, upcycled products will continue to become more desirable.

We have a choice.

Being conscious of what we buy is important, and in the long term, the habits of consumers is what shapes the habits of companies and producers. Every time you choose to buy a product that is upcycled, you are keeping materials out of landfills, but also promoting a more sustainable economy.

The complexity of what we buy, where it comes from, and where it goes after, can be overwhelming. But thanks to companies, artisans, and consumers who are choosing to innovate, the entire process can become significantly better.

Thankfully, efforts are being made to make our recycling systems more efficient and more effective. But these changes won’t happen overnight, and at the end of the day, it’s unlikely they will ever be 100% efficient.

As we wait for the day when we have a closed loop in our production cycles, doing everything we can to use eco-friendly products helps our planet tremendously. When it comes to recycling and repurposing our materials, the future is looking up.