Recycling involves reproducing the same product or material, over and over. Although it might be reconstructed in a different form, the base material will remain the same. Glass, aluminium and other metals are some of the most common materials that are recycled because they don’t degrade over time.
In contrast, materials such as paper degrade over time due to the weak durability of the fibres. Therefore, downcycled products, such as paper, do not retain their former quality. Such products can be downcycled only until a certain point, at which they will then need to be diverted to landfill.
Upcycling ensures materials remain in the production loop rather than being discarded as waste after they have served their primary use. For example, you could upcycle leftover timber palettes into a coffee table. You could convert old pieces of clothing into a bag, or a tablecloth. You could make old ladders into shelves. Upcycling is the reconstruction of recycled materials. The idea is that the recycled materials progress through a perpetual chain of production, ultimately evolving into higher quality products.
Upcycling encourages you to think about what you could do with your trash before you dispose of it!
Downcycling is where the material from a product, typically plastic, is reclaimed for recycling purposes and converted into a lower quality product.
Examples of downcycling include transforming plastics into a fleece jacket, or downcycling paper into lower quality cardboard. Downcycled products involve the reprocessing of used virgin materials, therefore they are typically of a lower quality.
To help you further understand the process, think about this:
- A company manufactures a bag
- Customer buys the bag and uses it until it wears out.
- The bag is return to the company
- The company downcycles it into yarn
- The yarn is turned into fabric
- Fabric is turned into a new bag
- And, repeat!
While downcycling usually involves breaking down a product into its constituent elements and commercially reproducing or manufacturing it, upcycling is something you can do by yourself!
The potentials for recycling are limitless!
Overall, recycling, upcycling and downcycling expand the lifespan of a material, thereby conserving energy and resources!