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Upcycling versus recycling

9 October 2020

The action of reducing and reusing waste has grown in popularity and so too have the different terms used. Like us, you might find yourself asking, what’s the difference between upcycling and recycling? Here's a brief guide.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling takes old, discarded and unused items and materials and turns them into something practical, useful and sometimes artistic. Upcycling gives an item a new and often better purpose. 

Contrary to popular belief, upcycling is not new. In fact some of the best cases of upcycling can be found in the 1930 and 40s, when many people were poor and so had to be thrifty and clever, which meant reusing many different things. Old doors were repurposed as dining tables, tyres were used to make swings and feed sacks turned into items of clothing.

How is recycling different to upcycling?

Recycling takes many different materials, usually plastic, glass, paper, metal and timber, and breaks them down so that the base materials can be used to make a new material or product.

So the difference between recycling and upcycling is the fact that when you upcycle a product, item or material you are not breaking down the materials — simply refashioning or repurposing its use. For example, you can upcycle a bicycle to use it as a seat, a plant potholder or a piece of wall art.

While recycling does require energy and water to break down materials, which upcycling doesn’t (it just needs a bit of ambition and elbow grease!) — upcycling and recycling are much more environmentally friendly than sourcing new materials and products.

Environmentally friendly

The most important point about upcycling and recycling is the fact that both make a positive impact on the environment. Whether you are upcycling or recycling, you are preventing items from ending up in the garbage stream and in landfill and reducing the need for new virgin material to be sourced.

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