What is the Difference Between Recycling and Upcycling?

The term “upcycling” is becoming more common these days, especially in conversations about sustainability and conservation. The phrase was originally coined in Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough. While it’s yet to become a completely mainstream idea it’s still an important goal for people and a word that needs a proper definition. Many people are trying to promote the practice of upcycling but they’re failing because they aren’t defining it properly.

Everyone knows what recycling is; recycling is when you take something and aim to use it again and again rather than throw it in the trash pile. Looking up “recycling” in the dictionary will give you the following definitions;

  1. To treat or process used or waste materials so that they can be used again; such as recycling paper to save trees
  2. To use something for a new purpose without fundamentally changing it; such as using an old factory as a new theatre
  3. To use something again without changing it too much; such as when a politician recycles their speeches
  4. To make something go through a cycle again; such as when you recycle laundry through a washing machine

Some people would describe upcycling as the process of using a material without lowering its quality and composition. When you recycle a plastic bottle, for example, you can’t turn it into something that could be ingested due to the chemicals that may or may not have entered the plastic. Plastic bottles generally become carpets, toys, or fleeces, rather than new plastic bottles. These are things that will usually become trash in the end. In a way all the recycling did was prolong the inevitable trashing by delaying how long it took us to trash something.

This shows us the importance of upcycling. Upcycling reduces the amount of waste produced that will end up in a landfill for generations. It also reduces the amount of materials we need to harvest to make new goods. So when we upcycle plastic we drill less oil. For metal we mine less. For paper we need to cut less trees. Overall it means less energy is wasted.

The way that we treat soda cans is quite close to true upcycling. Soda cans are made from aluminium and can be safely melted down and turned into new cans; a process that saves 90% of the energy spent on making a brand new can. We can do this forever too. A can can always be a new can. This brings down our energy consumption and stops materials from ending up as waste. Paper is another material that can be infinitely upcycled like this.

People like to brag about their upcycling efforts by showing off the wallets they made from tires or the chairs they made from pallets. This isn’t upcycling. This is recycling. The materials are not going back up in the supply chain. They just make the chain a little longer.

Upcycling is a truly cyclical process that every industry and company should be striving for. Just aiming for upcycling would be an important step right now. Imagine how different almost every product could be if, right from the moment it was created, it was created with the intent that it would never enter a landfill. There are many ways to train the economy so that reusing is just a natural part of the production process.

Ultimately upcycling could be defined as a process that can repeated infinitely in which materials are returned back to their malleable forms without degrading their latent value – a process where things are upcycled back up the supply chain.

Of course this doesn’t mean that recycling is a waste of time or unimportant. Instead recycling is more of an important first step in the overall comprehensive waste management solution that could lead to drastically reducing the need for virgin materials that are produced or mined from the earth.