The Difference between Upcycling vs Recycling

The Difference between Upcycling vs Recycling

The term Upcycling is relatively new compared to the term recycling. The word Upcycling entered the collective consciousness in the early 2000’s whereas the concept of public recycling as we know it has been around since late 1900’s. So what is this new term that’s getting thrown around and how does it differ from what we know as recycling.

According to the national environmental protection agency, recycling is:

“The recovery of useful materials, such as paper, glass, plastic and metals, from the MSW (municipal solid waste) stream, along with the transformation of the materials, to make new products to reduce the amount of virgin raw materials needed to meet consumer demands.”

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of Upcycling is:

“To recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item : to create an object of greater value from (a discarded object of lesser value)”

At first glance it would seem that these definitions overlap however the difference to note is that recycled products involve transformation of the materials whereas an upcycled product, in contrast, is made from parts of a product at the end of its useful life and does not involve using chemical or heat treated processes to break the material down into its elementary forms.

Recycling aims to source products made with similar materials and use multi stage processes to separate a discarded consumer product into its basic elements for repurposing. Upcycling is the reuse of materials by converting material considered waste to produce usable products by using the material “as is”.

So in effect, upcycling is essentially the clever reuse of a material at the end of its useful life by giving it a second life. Reuse is the second R in the popular ethos that was the catalyst for the Upcycling movment put forth by William Mcdonough – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

History and Origins Recycling and Upcycling

The word “Upcycling” is an combination of the words “up” and “recycling”. The term Upcycle was popularized in 1996 by a German scientist and architect named William McDonough in his now famous book Cradle to Cradle. The upcylcing methodology as defined by Mcdonough is a broad spectrum approach to consumption whereby products that contain environmentally harmful materials are designed to circulate in closed loop systems that model biological processes.

Image credit: A Schulz CC

Upcycling has been a trending term with increasing popularity over the last decade. With growing awareness of environmental damage done by pollution, individuals and small businesses without the means to recycle products that would normally go into the recycling bin are finding ways to give used products a second life.

Recycling, in the broad sense of reusing materials, has been practiced for centuries. Prior the industrial revolution and the collectively held ethical and sustainable impacts of waste, recycling was born out of necessity and resource scarcity. During the mid-1900’s recycling processes began to see significant investment and popularity after the realization that various material re-use was more cost effective than producing new “virgin” materials.

Recycling as we know it today, whereby municipalities ordain certain materials as recyclable and curbside collection takes place, was not widely adopted and implemented across the United States until the mid-1980’s.

Our understanding that waste management has a multitude of benefits is not recent. Over the course of history, technology, cities and scientific understanding of how man made materials impact the environment have allowed society to deal with larger populations and quantities of waste. Large scale recycling programs have increasingly reduced the amount of landfilled waste since the EPA started recording the data in the 1960’s.

Upcycling, although a relatively new concept, builds upon the traditional idea of recycling by suggesting improved product design resulting in reduced downstream footprints achieved. Better design could potentially consist of usage efficiency, reduced use of both virgin and non-virgin materials and re-use for “non-technical” materials that are non-biodegradable.

Recycling and Upcycling processes and Methods

In the United States, the environmental protection agency oversees all municipal waste recycling activities and publishes data on material specific recycling activities. Public recycling services offered by cities and towns are very specific about the products and materials you can recycle and published data from the EPA centers around a handful of common materials that make up the lion’s share of their recyclables.

Paper for example, which has the highest recycled rate of all municipal solid waste as of the EPA’s last report in 2015, is mixed with chemicals to separate the organic from inorganic components such as ink and glue. Eventually the paper is reduced to an organic pulp made up of cellulose which can be dried and used in the production of new paper.

Metal, rubber and textiles comprise the second largest recycling category by total tonnage. The transformative process used in recycling metals is heat. Metals are sorted, shredded and melted for purification before being made used in new products.

The recycling processes above allow for large quantities of these materials to be pushed through recycling plants while much of the work is now done by automated machinery. Upcycling, on the other hand, is not associated with standardized industrial methods of breaking down products in their most elemental forms.

Upcycling. . . to some degree, involves a little creativity and has provided small business and individuals the ability to repurpose materials that would otherwise be difficult to recycle. For example, RebornRubber collects scrap neoprene that businesses would otherwise throw away as well as used wetsuit neoprene to create slim wallets that float. Looptworks, another company using Upcycling as their core business model, uses leather from old airliner seats to create beautiful purses and bags. The number of individuals repurposing products for personal use has increased as well.

Reborn Rubber Wallets upcycled from scrap neoprene and used wetsuits

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An article published in almost a decade ago states that “The number of products on Etsy tagged with the word "upcycled" rocketed up from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later--an increase of 275 percent.” Evidence of this trend has continued with search intent for upcycled products steadily rising to date.

Finding an alternative use for an existing product can be a challenge but the upcycling process isn’t relegated to creative retail products. Upcycling can be seen at large scale as well. Abandoned coal mines are now being converted to solar fields and Large wine barrels have been turned into a hotel in the Netherlands.

Environmental cost / benefit Recycling

Both Recycling and Upcycling use less greenhouse gas emissions when compared with producing products from virgin raw materials. Recycling greenhouse gas emissions are measured in EF’s (emissions factors). This is the measurement of how much pollution is produced according to a measured activity i.e. amount per ton of material reprocessed.

Until recently emissions factors for recycling have traditionally been difficult to standardize due to the variability of recycling processes and scale that spans across countries. In 2015 a comprehensive and detailed study was done to analyze greenhouse gas emissions factors based on the type of material being recycled.

What’s interesting about the findings of this study is that paper, the most recycled material in the United States by a long shot, had the highest greenhouse gas emissions however the net GHG emissions factor was lower than the alternative of producing new virgin paper. This was the same for aluminum cans where the emissions factor was higher than most other recycled product but immensely lower than the EF of producing new cans. It’s evident that while the process of recycling does create greenhouse gasses it is still a net positive compared to producing products from new materials

Infografic reference: Dyfed Loesche / Statista

Environmental cost / benefit Upcycling

Upcycling, in a basic sense, requires zero greenhouse gas emissions however in many cases there can be indirect emissions attributable to the process. For example, MapleXO is a business that makes accessory items from old skateboards. Upcyling old skateboard decks uses less greenhouse gas emissions than producing new ones and likely less GHG’s than recycling the same amount of wood. There is however some level of carbon footprint to the activity if you consider the transportation involved in sourcing, running a facility to create the products and the emissions created by shipping those products.

Considering the opportunity cost of many products that get thrown away or even recycled, upcycling is an ideal choice regardless of the greenhouse gasses associated with running a business that accomplishes these goals. If the greenhouse gasses that a business like MapleXO creates are mainly the result of transportation and shipping then, as a society, we are headed in the right direction. Transportation is slowly getting greener and a multitude of nations have recently vowed to reduce their carbon footprint by dependency on coal and natural gas.

Examples of Recycled versus Upcycled products and materials

Many recycled products may already be in your home without your knowing about them. For example there are a plethora of building construction companies using recycled materials to produce cement blocks, insulation and roofing materials. The environmental protection agency maintains a database of partnering companies that use all or a portion of recycled materials in their products.

The main difference between the recycled components these companies use between upcycled products is that the recycled products are typically made from a base of raw recycled material. For example, recycled carpeting consist plastic fibers which are typically sourced from a variety of plastic products that are melted, extruded and then manufactured into recycled carpet.

Upcycled materials in products do not go through the process of being broken down to an elemental form. Many times you will see a product that is simply repurposed for a different use after its useful life its former purpose is no longer useful. The list upcycled and recycled products below demonstrates the differences that exist

Products made with Recycled materials

A pallet made from reycled plastics. Image via NortherTool

Blankets made from recycled wool. Image via YogaDirect

Jug made from recycled glass. Image via Riverbend

Notebooks made with recycled paper. From Guided

recycled plastic table. Image via Uline

Water bottle made with recycled plastics. Image via epromos

Upcycled Products

Wallet made from scrap neoprene and recycled plastic. RebornRubber

A messenger back made from a belgian postbag and military jacket. Image via Peace4youbags

Grey goose vodka bottles turned into tumblers. Available on Etsy

Wine bottle corks used in artwork. Available on Etsy

Antique bugle repurposed as a lamp. Made by StoneHillDesign

Wedding rings made from used skateboards and stainless steel. Sold by Skate4create

Way’s you support the Upcycling movement

Throwing our recyclables into the plastic bins and dragging them out to the curb has become engrained in our society however upcycling is a fairly new trend in consumer purchasing. Supporting upcycled products and upcycling materials individually can reduce your carbon footprint and, while it may not seem much when it’s just you, collectively we can make a difference.

Supporting businesses that use would be trash or scrap in the production of their products is a solid place to start. Add the word “upcycled” at the beginning of your google search next time you search for a product to buy. You can also follow blogs and youtubers that provide content on clever upcycling ideas. Below are some places to start if you’re interested in learning the basics of upcycling.

Key Takeaways

Both recycling and upcycling produce positive environmental effects when compared to using virgin material pulled from the natural environment. Upcycling differs fundamentally from recycling in that substances circulate in a closed loop and are re-purposed in alternative ways. Recycling is can be considered similar to upcycling in that material is ultimately re-used however recycling additionally consists of reducing products to their basic properties, a byproduct of which is greenhouse gas emission. This is not common to most upcycled products seen on the market today.

As science and processes improve, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with large scale recycling will (and have) improve. Although upcycled products and materials have not reached critical mass, the effects of additional carbon savings through creative design and appeal are undeniable.