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Explaining the difference between Recycling vs. Upcycling

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Recycling means to turn waste into a reusable product or to refurbish a product for reuse. Upcycling, a particular form of recycling, involves turning waste material or an unwanted product into a better-quality product. When considering what to do with unwanted products or materials, consider whether upcycling the items or recycling them in another fashion would be most beneficial to your budget and the environment.


Recycling follows the philosophy that used items can still be useful -- or provide useful materials. Upcycling aligns with this philosophy but takes it a step further, asserting that items made from recycled materials can be even more desirable than the original products. This practice stands in contrast to the common practice of downcycling, which means turning a product into something less desirable (see Reference 2). For example, the quality of many plastics downgrades through continued reuse; thus, they're used to produce increasingly less valuable products.

Using Creativity in Upcycling

Upcycling projects involve creative ways of using old products and materials. Such projects can serve as an engaging way to teach children about green living or as a fun hobby for adults. A number of designers have thriving upcycling businesses, turning used products into attractive garments, accessories or household accents. Typically, they want their customers to know the items have been creatively designed from used products, reaching out to a customer base that appreciates this practice. The former use of the product is often apparent, rather than hidden, to play up the creative aspect.

Benefits of Recycling

Turning every recyclable item into an upcycling project may not be practical. Furthermore, fixing a broken item may be the simplest -- and greenest -- solution. If you're debating how to reuse an item, let common sense prevail. If you can glue together the lid of your broken teapot, it doesn't need to become a flowerpot just yet -- which saves you from buying a new teapot. Simply strive to minimize new purchases, refurbishing or upcycling your existing items in whatever way they can serve you best.

Examples of Upcycling

Upcycling projects can be as simple as folding an old newspaper into a biodegradable flowerpot. Other options include jewelry made from zippers, felted slippers made from the wool of used sweaters, bags made from crocheted strips of plastic grocery bags and T-shirts turned into trendy children's dresses.

Examples of Recycling

Some recycled products may not look as overtly repurposed as upcycled items. For example, paving surfaces that incorporate rubber from old tires do not look like used tires. Likewise, containers made from recycled plastic don't look different from other containers. Similarly, a refurbished coffee machine from a thrift shop may look similar to a neighbor's new coffee machine and brew coffee just as well.

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