Upcycling v Downcycling v Recycling: What's the Difference?
"So you folks recycle materials to make things?" Well, kind of. There are a variety of ways one can reuse excess (or waste) and discarded resources, each with their own set of pros and cons. Not unlike what bourbon is to whiskey, upcycling is a type of recycling, but not all recycling is upcycling. Let us explain...
In the fashion industry, leftover scraps are called "excess" and are typically sent to the landfill or incinerated. Did you know that 10-30% of all input materials end up being deemed waste?*
On top of that, in many cases, businesses will even incinerate unsold surplus clothing to avoid driving their perceived value down by keeping them out of thrift stores.
When it comes to closed loop solutions, we look to preserve the highest value of an existing material or product. That means lengthening the life and increasing the use of the resources that went into a material in the first place.
However, this is just one step within the circular economy. The ultimate goal is to design out waste and to keep products and materials in use infinitely. In order to achieve this, an understanding of upcycling, downcycling, and recycling is critical.
Downcycling Diminishes Value
Downcycling is where a recycled product is not as structurally strong as the original made from virgin materials. Downcycled materials can only be used to make a different type of product than the original. Common examples of downcycling are converting plastic bottles into carpeting, fleece fibers for clothing or plastic lumber products.
Recycling plastics is often downcycling because the end product is a lesser-quality plastic. However, many materials can be downcycled. Cotton shirts and jeans are often downcycled into housing insulation. Shoe soles or rubber-like products are downcycled into sport courts, tracks, or playground flooring.
So, are there downsides to downcycling? In theory, yes. Downcycling diminishes both the value of the textile and the resources that went into its creation. So there is lost value (environmentally, financially, and beyond) in leveraging downcycling as a default solution for excess products and textiles.
But it is still an important piece of sustainable business and the circular economy. For products or textiles that don't have any other higher value options, downcycling still:
> Reduces energy costs in production of virgin materials
> Reduces pollution
> Decreases manufacturing costs
> Keeps that textile or product out of the landfill
Upcycling Prolongs the Life of Materials
Reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.
When it comes to making the most out of our planet's resources, upcycling IS superior to downcycling since it prolongs the intended value and purpose of materials. In many instances, the name of the game is keeping the materials higher up in the chain of production. Manufacturing new materials to create with requires more energy and resources. That includes water and electricity. By prolonging the life of existing materials, the consumption of natural resources and energy is tapered off by a significant margin.
Keeping it in the Loop
Both upcycling and downcycling are important components of a “closed-loop” manufacturing system. This where Looptworks prides itself on doing things differently. In a true closed-loop scenario, a company is responsible the materials it creates forever. Any material created is collected and recycled to make the next generation of products. In addition to constantly hunting for new untapped streams of wasted resources, Looptworks is working toward closing the loop completely by developing a return system where we welcome back used products to be born again into something cool. We aren't there yet though.
Growing environmental, social and economic pressures are constantly driving the need for low-impact products. Instances of upcycling and downcyclying will increase, moving us closer toward our closed-loop future. The world we build will soon mimic our 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. It sounds outlandish to some, but to us it's our future and we can't wait for you to join us.
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.