Recycling vs. Upcycling: What is the difference?

pile of plastic bottles for recycling Over the last decade the term “Upcycling” has been coined and worked into the discourse of sustainability efforts. It appeared in William McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle. It has yet to earn itself mainstream popularity, but its necessity as a goal for how we should be progressing makes its definition important. Like so many things in sustainability, I come across many enthusiasts who are trying to promote the practice but may be passing around an incorrect meaning.

We all know what the basis of Recycling is: a practice that takes an item and targets it for reuse, returning it back to the cycle of daily contribution to society rather than discarding it to trash. Going to the dictionary for confirmation renders the following:

  • to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse: recycling paper to save trees
  • to alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of: The old factory is being recycled as a theater
  • to use again in the original form or with minimal alteration: The governor recycled some speeches from his early days
  • to cause to pass through a cycle again: to recycle laundry through a washing machine

Upcycling is described by some as reusing a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use. When plastic bottles are recycled, for instance, most often they cannot be turned back into containers associated with anything that can be ingested due to the risk of things seeping into the plastic. As a result, these usually become carpets, or toys, or winter fleeces: things that will eventually also become trash. Recycling has simply prolonged the inevitable by stretching out our waste stream and made the lifecycle costs of the material a bit less.

upcycle lifecycle diagram

In this model, upcycling becomes dually important. First, the practice reduces the amount of waste that we produce and ultimately goes into the ground for longer than any of us will be around. Secondly, it also reduces the need for new virgin material to be harvested as feedstock for new generations of product. In the case of plastic, this means less oil wells drilled. For metals, less mountains mined. For paper, less trees felled. All around this means less expended energy.

Our treatment of soda cans is closer to a true upcycling model. These aluminum containers can be melted down and made into brand new cans and in the process save over 90% of the energy required to make new ones from scratch. This cycle can continue in perpetuity, reducing energy consumption and effectively removing certain materials from the waste stream. Newsprint finds similar success.

More than once I have seen people broadcasting their “upcycling” habits like making wallets from tires, or lawn chairs from pallets, or tables from wire spools. These are examples of recycling. None of those materials are going back UP the supply chain (the series of processes that an industry uses to create a product or service.) They are just making the chain a bit longer.

Upcycling represents a truly cyclical, balanced process that all industries and companies should be aiming towards. At this point, just having the aim would be another important step. All of our products could be drastically changed if the beginning of their design started with the goal of not having them end up in a landfill. A number of ways could be utilities to train our economy into an inherent practice of reuse. My personal definition of the term ends up as:

Upcycling: A process that can be repeated in perpetuity of returning materials back to a pliable, usable form without degradation to their latent value—moving resources back up the supply chain.

It is important to note that I am not saying that recycling is a waste of time or beyond acclaim. Rather, recycling is a first step in reaching a more comprehensive and sustainable solution of waste management that can eventually limit the amount of new, virgin materials that need to be produced or mined from the earth.

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