Recycling vs Upcycling: What’s the Difference?
Updated: Jul 19
There are two main ways to reuse materials: recycling and upcycling. Recycling takes old materials and breaks them down into new materials that can be used for other products. Upcycling takes old materials and transforms them into something new and better than what they were before.
Both recycling and upcycling are important parts of going green and reducing your carbon footprint. But what’s the difference between the two? Let’s take a closer look.
Related Article: Biodegradable vs Compostable Materials: What's The Difference?
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of taking old materials and breaking them down into new materials that can be used for other products. This can include things like cans, plastic, paper, and metal. The benefits of recycling include reducing pollution, saving energy from mining and long-distance transportation and conserving resources.
When you recycle, your recyclables are collected either from your home, workplace, or a council-run recycling centre. They are then taken to a recycling plant, where they are sorted into types. This is done because different materials are recycled using different processes. For example, aluminium and glass can be 100% recycled, while plastic and paper cannot.
After recyclables are sorted, they are broken down into smaller pieces, processed and formed into new raw materials to be made into new products. However, because plastic is not as strong as it was when it was first created, it is often mixed with fresh plastic.
The same can be said for paper. Recycled paper is frequently combined with new paper. This is because recycled paper has lost much of its purity and strength as compared to when it was initially produced. Despite this, recycling is still essential since it minimizes waste disposal and is long-term environmentally friendly.
What Can Be Recycled?
Generally, anything made from paper can be recycled, including newspapers, magazines, cardboard, and office paper. Also, some plastics, glass from bottles and containers, metals from cans made from tin, aluminum, and steel can all be recycled. Just make sure that they are clean and free of food and other contaminants.
Commonly recycled materials are concrete, steel, aluminium, plastics (such as PET, PP, PBT, and PLA), textiles, wood, glass, and paper.
What Cannot Be Recycled?
Although a lot of products can be recycled fairly easily, some items, unfortunately, can’t. This is because they are either too contaminated or not made from materials that can be recycled cleanly for economic reasons.
Examples are plastics used for containing bathroom toiletry products eg. toothpaste or food packaging would require more energy and costs to recycle compared to the raw virgin material. Certain types of foam, such as polystyrene, are difficult and expensive to recycle since they are mostly air and frequently contaminated.
It is also difficult to recycle items that closely integrate mixed materials into their function or feature because it is difficult or time-consuming to separate. For example, dual-material products like glossy paperboard materials used to hold liquids or foods, prove difficult to separate, or mixed-plastic products since the plastics may require different processing.
The Key Processes Involved In Recycling
High recyclability is a term used to describe a material that can be rapidly recycled. It implies that the chemical and physical properties of the original material do not deteriorate significantly from those of virgin materials.
Recycling has been more of a way to reduce the environmental effect of waste than it has been a strategy for eliminating it.
The term "energy recovery" refers to the recycling process of recovering energy from waste materials by converting non-recyclable waste into thermal energy, electrical power, or fuel. It makes up the bulk of recycling processes worldwide.
Unfortunately, since it is frequently used to destroy waste items, it may produce harmful emissions, which need to be controlled, limited, and measured regularly.
The next most important aspect of recycling is the material recovery process. This is both an environmentally and economically beneficial effort, as raw materials that are readily available from natural resources are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
For example, aluminium is more readily accessed through secondary recycling processes than primary extraction methods.
The Environmental Benefits Of Recycling
Recycling conserves natural resources like water, timber, and minerals by taking less energy to manufacture products from recycled materials than it does to make them from virgin materials.
Water is consumed in manufacturing most other products. For example, it takes 22 gallons of water to make one pound of plastic. In fact, it takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle.
There are reduced greenhouse gas emissions as it takes less energy expenditure to manufacture products from recycled materials than it does from new materials. This is because recycled materials are easier to process and don't require as much energy for raw virgin materials to be processed and reformed into new products.
Recycling is one way to help limit the amount of waste that goes into landfills brimming with mountains of waste. Most of this waste could be prevented if we were more careful about recycling. Just think, every time a tin can or a plastic bottle is recycled, it is one less item thrown into waste that ends up in landfills.
What is Upcycling?
Upcycling is the process of taking something that is no longer needed and transforming it into something new and useful. This can be done by repurposing or reusing.
You have a glass sauce jar on hand. You may wash it out and place it in the glass recycling bin to be recycled as materials in future manufacturing. If you wanted to upcycle or repurpose the jar, you could clean it out and use it as a desk tidy or make-up brush storage.
What Can Be Upcycled?
Upcycling is a creative process of finding new use or purpose in a previously discarded item. It involves taking an item that would otherwise be wasted and improving it in some way to make it useful again.
Old and outdated furniture is a popular upcycled "material". A cabinet or chest of drawers may be quickly and easily restored by sanding, painting, and adding new handles.
However, upcycling is more than just upgrading or renovating things into improved versions of themselves; objects are frequently repurposed to serve a completely different function.
Plastic bottles, for example, can be used to make a variety of items, including a face visor, a plant container, a watering can, fairy lights, and even a bird feeder.
Old jeans may be used to create backpacks, tops can be woven together to make shopping bags or plant holders. It's also possible to turn a single dress into a two-piece garment.
What Cannot Be Upcycled?
There are limitations to items that can be upcycled despite the repurposing or any attempts at improvement and upgrades. Items which are damaged or broken beyond repair, have become dangerous to use, they contain hazardous materials eg. foam that is toxic when burnt.
When you are certain that an article in its current form cannot be used anymore and needs to be broken down and reformulated, then recycling is a better option. For instance, metals like copper and aluminium might bring more value being recycled than upcycled, sitting as a paperweight or art piece.
Key Processes Involved In Upcycling
Upcycling is reusing or re-purposing disposed of items, without processing them into their base state of component materials, to create a "new" product of a different function or improved value - commonly described as "creative reuse".
In comparison, recycling is the process of breaking down disposed of items or waste materials back into their "raw" materials state to create new products.
Upcycling, emphasizes the principle of "designing out waste" during the design of products, in preparation for future upcycling at the end of the product's lifetime.
Related article: A guide to sustainable product life cycle assessment (SLCA)
Designing out waste can be done by designing products that can be easily assembled or disassembled and can incorporate future expansions if required. Specific measures should be taken to facilitate quicker and easier disassembly, repair, re-purposing, and reuse of the products.
Recycling involves the destruction of waste in order to create something new, whereas upcycling takes waste and creates something new from it in its current state.
When upcycling, the original form is retained and the object is recognisable, it can be seen what it has been and also what it has become.
While recycling is practical, upcycling is highly creative and can involve a wide variety of techniques and materials to create the finished product.
The Environmental Benefits Of Upcycling
Upcycling has much the same benefits as recycling eg. avoiding the use of landfills, conversing natural resources etc. However, in the waste hierarchy, recycling is featured below upcycling or reusing. Opting to recycle is ideal only when reusing the material is not possible anymore - see section What Cannot Be Upcycled.
This is because recycling an item requires a lot of energy. Recycling entails breaking down finished goods into their raw base components in order to create new items. It's estimated that 20 tons of carbon dioxide is prevented from entering the atmosphere for every ton of textiles that get upcycled instead of recycled.
Hence, if upcycling is done instead of recycling, it reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. It's also estimated that only 9% of what we recycle ACTUALLY gets recycled.
Recycling and Upcycling Compared Side-by-Side
The process of recycling consumes a significant quantity of energy because it involves activities like transportation, cleaning, sifting, melting, purification, granulation, and extruding.
Recycling is energy efficient because most of the processes are limited to cleaning and assembly/disassembly of parts.
Contamination and inefficient separation are common problems with recycled materials, making them of lower quality than those that utilize virgin materials.
The quality of repurposed goods is often comparable to or greater than that of products made with virgin materials. eg. antique furniture, classic kitchen-ware.
Toxic waste generation
Energy recovery, which involves turning waste into energy, generates hazardous chemicals.
The rate of toxic waste generation is drastically reduced when you upcycle.
Recycling is rather straightforward with well-known industrial procedures and automated processes.
The process of upcycling may be difficult due to the wide range and dissimilarity of the source materials. Construction of new items is difficult to automate.
Types of materials
Because waste materials can be broken down into simpler forms, recycling may be used to recycle a wider variety of items including polymers, metals, and paper.
Upcycling, on the other hand, is restricted in terms of its breadth of application since the waste materials must be used in its current form.
Recycling may be done on a large scale as it has a developed infrastructure for collecting, breaking down, and reusing recycled materials.
In terms of supply chains, networking, and bulk production, upcycling is still in its early stages.
There is a ready-made market for recycled products. Recycling is seen as more sustainable and environmentally friendly than producing new products from scratch. Recycled products have the same consistent and known quality standard.
Upcycled products are not as viable for commercial production as recycled products. The end-product quality can vary due to the lack of automation. Additionally, upcycled products are often more expensive to produce, due to the higher level of craftsmanship required.
How They Work Together
Despite the almost subtle distinctions between upcycling and recycling, what both terms imply is a heightened awareness of our consumer decisions and responsibilities in relation to what we do with our possessions after we've used them.
Upcycling is a highly creative process that may utilize a wide range of methods, craftmanship and additional materials to make the finished item, as opposed to recycling, which is essentially an industrial manufacturing process.
Some companies have even begun to marry the two processes of recycling and upcycling to create new sustainable materials for production. By upcycling post-consumer recycled polyester fabrics, plastic bottles and single-use food packaging into higher-value thermoplastics for the automotive, electronic and electrical appliance industries. They were able to enhance the material’s properties while extending the useful life of polyester products and contributing to plastic waste reduction.
So there you have it, the difference between upcycling and recycling! We hope this has inspired you to think about ways that you can reduce waste and create something new from what would otherwise be discarded.
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