Ecology

Upcycling vs Recycling vs Downcycling

When it comes to speaking about the future of a material, many brand advertisement campaign and also many publications linked to greenwashing speak about “recycling”. This is often the wrong term for what they are talking about, better would it be to make the difference between Upcycling vs Recycling vs Downcycling.

In this article we want to show you the differences of the terms and the impact behind them.

The general definition

Basically Upcycling means to raise the quality, Recycling means to keep it on the same level and downcycling means lowering the quality.

But we need to go a bit further into the terms and look at some examples to understand the differences. The common term is “cycling”, which means to keep things in a circle. Though, quickly, you will understand that not all of these methods are circular, but working in a spiral, either upwards, either downwards.

So let’s start with the term you might already know about, as we presented several brands before, doing this.

Upcycling

Upcycling is certainly the best of all three, but also the one used the fewest.

It means to use materials and resources in a different way and raise their quality. This rising leads to the term “up”.

Let’s have a look with an example: Upcycling is using unused resources to make something better, something with a higher level of usage. For example, Second Sew uses old tissues to make clothes for kids. Or a small label from Brest, called YO Yarn Over, using threads made of used cotton shirts to knit new objects with them.

In these examples it is easy to understand, but there are cases which are less obvious. If we look at plastic bottles which are used to make polyester shirts or pullovers this is already a different thing. Yes a pullover has a higher usage than plastic bottles. But ideally we also have a method in upcycling in which we do not add resources or pollute. To make Polyester you need to inject some “fresh” material, so raw oil. Further, these articles are made of short fibres which easily break and diffuse microplastics into the oceans. So, technically upcycling, is not the best way to do it.

Recycling

This leads us to recycling and as you know from blog posts we did before we are not fans of this term. What recycling means is to use a resource in a circle. Using it again and again and again ; the same material without any change.

This is possible for aluminium which can be used for decades. It is great to recycle as it is easy to filter in the collection stations and easy to use again. This is the perfect example for recycling.

But now the bad news: This is hardly the only example for recycling.

What brands, manufacturers and many others, want to tell you by adding the little sign with circulars arrows on packaging is in reality a lie.

“circulars arrows on packaging is in reality a lie”

It is not possible in terms of technical and human resources (for nearly all countries worldwide, Scandinavia is working on it) to perfectly separate materials. You throw away your plastic yoghurt cup with the lid for example which is still attached on it. To re-use any material it needs to be pure. (same for textiles) Today, no recycling centre has the machines or human resources to separate these materials.

Further, even if they were separated there are many types of thin plastics, as the lid, which cannot be recycled, but only burned or ending up as landfill. This plastic is simply too low quality to make anything out of it.

Plastics which can be used again are hard plastics as indeed bottles. But here is the next issue: Many countries do not have the possibility to do this in their country and first ship the empty bottles around the globe. Further, to make new bottles out of them, (reminder this is what recycling means: taking a material and injecting it back in the same circle) you need to inject around 20-30% of raw material.

So what happens instead with our “recycling” bottles? They are downcycled.

Downcycling

The problem of downcycling is that the term is not very sexy. It means to use resources to make something with a lower quality out of it.  So brands prefer not to be correct in working and use recycling instead.

Let’s look at some examples: A typical product always promoted as recycled and recyclable is packaging material as boxes. The thought is that this is a downcycling product.

Cardboard boxes are made of other paper, ok. But this needs to be higher quality paper and could be journals or books. Further, after usage you cannot make a new box of a used one. [A reason why we do not though away any boxes at Bag Affair but really use them as many times as possible.] So instead you can make lower quality paper products out of it, such as toilet paper for example.

Downcycling means to use materials again, but as fibres get shorter, quality gets lower.

Another example are textiles which are often made of a mix of composites, for example a cotton, polyamide mix. There is no way to separate the fibres and to recycle. But downcycling is possible for example by cutting them in smaller pieces for isolation.

To conclude

It is important to highlight that downcycling is not necessary bad. What we claim is simply that brands and advertisement should not promise false recycling instead.

What would be best is not to pollute our planet more but to focus on materials which are possible to really be recycled.

One last point: there is also the false promise of recycling done by many innovative companies using trash as cigarette studs, to make something else out of them. This is a start, but there is no way to truly decompose or to recycle the objects they made.

We believe it is possible to do better, but first of all we need to reduce our consumption and the pollution of our planet.

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