Upcycling, Downcycling and Recycling Explained

What is the difference between upcycling, downcycling and recycling? There are clear distinctions between the various ways we can reuse waste and other discarded materials. While upcycling and downcycling are both examples of recycling, not all recycling is considered equal.

When we convert discarded materials into something of equal or greater value, it is "Upcycled". When a material or product is “Downcycled", it is transformed into something of lesser value.


Upcycling Increases Value

Let’s look at an example. Here are some textile scraps.  On the left, black polyester scraps from the end of a bolt of cloth.  On the right, brown scrap leather cut from the edge of a hide.

Polyester and leather excess

The original material was used to make bags and luggage.  These leftover scraps--called excess--are now destined to be landfilled or incinerated. Instead, what if the materials are rescued and turned into a backpack?

Upcycling polyester and leather excess into a backpack

Much better.  The excess is upcycled into a backpack that has more value than the original materials. Aluminum and glass are also good candidates for upcycling.  That's because you can recycle these materials and end up with a raw material of equal quality.


Downcycling Diminishes Value

By contrast, downcycling occurs when waste material is converted into something of lesser value. Instead of upcycling the polyester excess into a backpack, let's melt it and downcycle it into yarn.

Downcycling nylon into thread

This is downcycling because the yarn is of lesser value than the piece of cloth it came from.  Recycling plastics is often downcycling because the end product is a lesser-quality plastic.


Upcycling Prolongs the Life of Materials

All else equal, upcycling is better than downcycling because upcycling prolongs the useful life of materials. Once the backpack wears out, it can be torn up and used it to stuff a dog bed. After the dog bed wears out, the stuffing can be downcycled again into polyester yarn.

Upcycling prolongs the life of materials


Upcycling Conserves Resources

Making new materials requires significant resources, including water and energy. By prolonging the life of existing materials, the need to create new materials is delayed or forgone.  Thus, resources are conserved.


Closing the Loop

Both upcycling and downcycling are important components of a “closed-loop” manufacturing system. That’s where the fun starts! In a true closed-loop scenario, a company owns the materials it creates forever.  Any material created is collected and recycled to make the next run of products.  Imagine a world where bottled-water companies owned the bottles they made forever! For starters, there'd be less plastic in the ocean, for another, some of them would probably get out of the business entirely or reimagine the model.  Here's another example from our backpack illustration:

  1. Company makes a backpack.
  2. Person uses the backpack until it wears out.
  3. Person returns it to the company.
  4. Company downcycles it into yarn.
  5. Yarn is turned into fabric.
  6. Fabric is turned into a backpack.
  7. Repeat!

A closed loop manufacturing example

As of this writing, there are no true closed-loop manufacturing systems, by which I mean there's no company I've been able to find that collects and recycles 100% of the material it produces.  But growing environmental, social and economic pressures are driving the need for low-impact products.  Instances of upcycling and downcyclying will increase, moving us closer and closer toward that closed loop future.  Our built world will increasingly mimic the natural world. Just like nothing is created or destroyed in an ecosystem, nothing will be created or destroyed in the process of making the products we need.  How neat is that?

Did you like our bag example?  As it turns out, we made some.  In fact, everything we produce is upcycled. In this case, they're upcycled from pre-consumer excess materials rescued from the outdoor gear and bag industry.  To be clear, we do not downcycle them into dog beds or yarn... yet.

backpack made from upcycled leather and polyester

Know of any companies, products, or processes that are using upcycling or downcycling in an interesting way? We'd love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments below.


2 Responses

Rhonda
Rhonda

August 22, 2016

The graphics you created to explain upcycling and downcycling are incredibly useful and I will be referring to your website when visiting different schools talking about waste reduction.

Thanks!

Livia Castrucci
Livia Castrucci

April 20, 2016

Awesome work. I truly love reading about your way of upcycling airplane seat covers, and other perfectly useable materials that are considered “waste”. An example that comes to mind is the fish nets that Interface (carpet tile manufacturer) collects and makes some of their floor coverings from. Here is a blog post: http://blog.interface.com/the-ripple-effect?_ga=1.227907805.1554694529.1429121857

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