Recycle vs. Upcycle

We are all pretty familiar with recycling but what differentiates recycling from upcycling? Let’s start with a couple of definitions: 


1.  To treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse.

2.  To alter or adapt for new use without changing the essential form or nature of.


1.    To process (used goods or waste material) so as to produce something that is often better than the original.

As you may see, the main differentiator between the two is that upcycling creates an item of higher value while recycling usually causes a loss or maintenance of a value.  Looking at it this way, recycling poses a bit of an economic conundrum-especially when it comes to cheaper virgin materials such as plastics.

There are usually more steps in a recycling process then in a virgin manufacturing facility.  Let’s take water bottles as an example.  To create a new plastic water bottle, pre- production plastic beads (known as nurdles) are fed into a plastic molder.  These beads are heated to their melting temperature and then forced into a mold creating the water bottle itself.  It’s a pretty straight-forward process of receiving clean raw materials, feeding them into maintained equipment and then gathering the finished product and checking for quality control.

Now, let’s look at the same water bottle but this time recycled.  First, clean post-consumer materials must be collected. These used plastic bottles must now be sorted, cleaned/sanitized, shredded and prepared to be processed in a plastic molder.  Once these materials are collected, cleaned, processed and prepped, they are now ready to begin a new life as another water bottle.  Keep in mind, that each of the processes requires resources, labor and also results in the loss of some of the initial material.  The more you look into the economics of plastics recycling, the more you can understand why it is not a solution to our plastic problem and why it is not widely done.

As a company, you would need to be willing (in most cases) to reduce profits in order to utilize recycled plastics.  As mentioned earlier, a recycled nurdle costs more than a brand-new one.  In addition, there will always be a slight concern when it comes to the purity and integrity of post-consumer plastics.  Therefore, a manufacturers only real motivation to support recycling must be a philanthropic one – and try selling that to most shareholders.

The concept of upcycling, however, is to take a material and elevate it to an item of greater value.  For example, taking old bicycle innertubes and turning them into jewelry, wallets and bags.  Upcycling requires innovative thinking and a willingness to experiment.  In most cases, upcycling will also involve more handmade and detailed processes.  I also truly believe that recycling tends to promote consumerism “as is” while upcycling forces us to re-evaluate what we consider waste and what we throw away. In my personal experience, it’s hard to justify “throwing” something away when you can see its potential value. It’s moments like these that make me continually question my choices as a consumer.

I do not, however, think that upcycling is the solution to our global municipal solid waste crisis.  Until we see increased manufacturer responsibility for the environment along with cradle-to-grave sustainable production and consumption, we will continue to see our landfills grow and our oceans and lakes fill with “trash”.  I can only hope that through my work and products, I am able to change the way people look at their own actions and start to question the options currently available to them.  Companies and governments will only do better if we demand if from them. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a change!