The Difference between Upcycling and Recycling

Reducing our resource consumption and reusing whatever we can is important for a great many reasons. The economy is still totally stagnant, and being able to avoid buying new as much as possible keeps money in your pocket that can be put towards other things. But the environmental reasons are just as important. You might not think your family alone can make a difference, but if we want to leave a livable world for our children and grandchildren, we must reuse what we have as much as possible. Recycling has been a common aspect of everyday life for decades now, having come to popularity back in the 1970’s. Most people are familiar with splitting their cans, plastic and used glass, and wrapping up their newspapers for pickup. You’ve probably also taken advantage of recycled products, from toilet paper to car tires. But you might not be as familiar with upcycling, an additional effort towards sustainability that has become popular just over the past decade. Knowing the difference between the two will help you bring them consistently into your life, saving time, money and energy for the future.

Recycling as it is done today involves taking a used item and transforming it for reuse. Depending on the product, that process can take a number of different shapes. If the product has already been used, it is processed so that it can be used again for a similar purpose, as with paper. If the product had a previous use that is now redundant, it can be repurposed, such as when machine plants are turned into arts centers or movie theaters. In all of these cases, the product being recycled must be changed practically down to its core, and often can no longer be used for the exact same purpose. For example, recycled plastic bottles are not often used as bottles a second time through, due to concern about chemicals being ingested. It is much more likely that that recycled plastic would become a toy or a piece of clothing.

Upcycling is quite different. In general, it means reusing a product without impacting the quality of that product for further use. While recycling is extending the life of something a touch longer, it will inevitably end up in a landfill. Upcycling, at least in theory, could extend the life of a product indefinitely. That makes the difference massively important. Upcycling cuts down on waste, and further reduces the need to use new resources to inevitably replace the original.

The way that we handle soda cans is a great example of upcycling. All of that aluminum is turned into new cans, which basically saves nearly 100% of the resources required to make a new aluminum can from scratch. And since the material doesn’t degrade, the process can keep going over and over again, well into the future.
It’s worth our time as a culture to create more ways to upcycle, and should be just as much a part of everyday life as recycling. While recycling is a hugely important aspect of environmental sustainability, upcycling represents our best chance to maintain a good quality of life going on into the future. Don’t be discouraged against recycling, however. If you have a vertical blind that needs replacing, using one made from recycled materials is still far preferable to buying new. Just think about ways you and your family can focus on upcycling, and you’ll be doing more than your part to extend your purchasing power, and the life of our planet.