Upcycling, Recycling, and Downcycling – What’s the difference?

Upcycling, recycling, and downcycling visualized

Not all recycling is equal – in fact, there are three types of recycling that are more, or less, effective at renewing the value, and quality of the material in question. These three types, in order of decreasing effectiveness, are upcycling, recycling, and downcycling. Here’s what each of them are.

Upcycling

Upcycling converts a material into something of greater value than it originally was.

Take, for example, scraps of cloth that have been left over from the production of a batch of clothes. Looptworks transforms these scraps into a brand-new high quality bag. The cloth, now in the form of a bag, is more valuable and useful than the very same material in its previous form as scraps.

A similar example is the transformation of plastic pouches into tote bags. In Indonesia, it is common to buy laundry detergent, dish soap, and other such products packaged inside plastic pouches. Some people have turned upcycling into a business opportunity by selling bags that they have crafted out of these plastic pouches. The plastic pouches are cleaned, cut, and sewn together into shopping bags or coin purses.

Just as with the scraps of cloth, these plastic pouches are more valuable as bags than they would be when recycled into a lower-grade plastic. And they are certainly more valuable than if they ended up in a landfill, which is the alternative option in Indonesia and many other countries. Thus, upcycling is a particularly useful citizen-driven solution in places where the alternative is a non-existent or unreliable recycling system or landfill.

Plastic pouches upcycled into tote bags
Left: Plastic pouches of fabric softener. Right: The plastic pouches upcycled into bags.

Recycling

Recycling converts a material into something of roughly the same value as it originally was.

The process of recycling reduces a product down to its composing materials in order to produce something new out of the material. Recycling, by definition, puts a material back into the same life cycle – hence, true recycling processes the material back into the same product. Consider those same cloth scraps we previously mentioned. Recycling these scraps will process the cloth down into threads, which are then used to create new bolts of cloth.

Metals, aluminium, and glass are materials that recycle well, as they can be recycled many times while the resulting material will still be of equal quality. Realistically however, a significant portion of recycling is actually downcycling, as certain materials result in a lesser quality material when recycled.

Downcycling

Downcycling converts a material into something of less value than it originally was.

Downcycling recycles the material into a lower quality substance, which is then used to create a lower-grade product. This is often because the nature of the material prevents it from retaining its former durability once re-processed. Thus, downcycling does not reinsert the material back into its original cycle. The result of downcycling is, for example, the creation of cleaning rags out of clothing, or newspaper out of writing paper. Paper and plastic are two materials that do not recycle well, and as a result are often downcycled instead.

 

Despite the fact that some forms of recycling retain more of the material’s value than others, at the end of the day all types of recycling help to prolong the material’s life in one form or another, which results in a reduced amount of virgin raw materials processed and a delay of the material eventually ending up in a landfill. So don’t forget to recycle!

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