Both upcycling and downcycling are examples of recycling, but not all recycling is created equal. “Upcycle” means to transform waste materials into something of equal or greater value. “Downcycle" means to transform waste into something of lesser 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Both upcycling and downcycling are important components of a “closed-loop” manufacturing system. That’s where the fun really 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:
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. They're upcycled from pre-consumer excess materials from the outdoor gear and bag industry. To be clear, we do not downcycle them into dog beds or yarn... yet.
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.