What Is Upcycling?

various items upcycled into new household objects including planters and vases

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Upcycling means creating something new from discarded materials by repairing, refurbishing, or repurposing them.

The upcycling movement emerged from a growing concern about collective waste. It has now become an outlet of creativity for many people who are focused on keeping things out of landfills. There are many techniques used to upcycle, as well as many products that can be upcycled.

Upcycling vs. Recycling vs. Downcycling

The phrases "upcycling" and "recycling" are often used interchangeably. Even the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of recycling sounds very similar to definitions of upcycling. However, there are important distinctions.

Recycling

Recycling is the process of collecting materials that would otherwise be trash, processing them, and turning them into new products.

In a few cases, recycling can be closed-loop system, where an item is processed and then turned into exactly the same item. Glass recycling is a great example of true closed-loop recycling — glass is broken down and remade into glass.

However, most materials cannot be recycled in a seamless closed loop. In the majority of cases, recycled products are actually "upcycled" or "downcycled."

Upcycling and downcycling refer to the value and quality of the new item produced via the recycling process.

Downcycling

In downcycling, the quality and value of the new item is lower than the original item. For example, recycled office paper is turned into tissue paper, toilet paper, and other lower value paper products.

Most industrial recycling processes ultimately downcycling processes, as the process of breaking down the item into its raw materials leads those materials to degrade so that they cannot be remade into as high quality a product as the original.

An item may make it through several rounds of downcycling, but eventually the materials are of such low quality that they become unusable.

Upcycling

By contrast, in upcycling, the value of the new item is the same or higher than the original item. An upcycled product maintains the quality of the original item, rather than being broken down into its raw materials.

Upcycling helps to create a circular economy, where materials can be constantly reused and not turn into waste. It is a practice that has been used throughout history as means to reduce waste in an inexpensive way, and it's now used in a wide range of processes — which are expanding the definition as a result.

What Can Be Upcycled?

what can be upcycled illustration featuring plastic, glass, and textiles

Treehugger / Ellen Lindner

Since upcycling repairs and repurposes materials in ways that add value to its compositional elements, so many products have the potential to be upcycled. Hobbyists and professionals across many industries create new products from old ones in an effort to increase sustainability and reduce costs. Below are just some examples.

Upcycling Plastics

a plastic bottle has been painted and upcycled into a plant pot held by person in mustard shirt
What was once a plastic bottle has been upcycled into a playful painted planter.

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Sometimes, the source material is evident in the new product; other times, the product is so removed from the source that it is completely unrecognizable. Plastic is often an example of the latter.

Many fashion brands are using plastic waste from the ocean in their shoes and apparel. Other companies make use of recycled plastic bottles. While clothing is a popular subject of upcycling, artisans also create jewelry and functional art from seemingly mundane objects. Do-it-yourself (DIY) projects are creating an abundance of household goods from simple plastics like plastic bags, laundry detergent containers, and plastic bottles.

Upcycling Clothing and Textiles

hands hold up a crocheted handmade blanket with multicolor squares

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

From replacing buttons to refashioning a T-shirt, upcycled clothing has long been a popular style choice. A quick search in Pinterest or YouTube will provide a plethora of tutorials on ways to upcycle clothes and fabric scraps. Textiles can be recycled just about 100% of the time. However, the threads of recycled materials, such as cotton, do not have the quality of the original fabric, which makes the life cycle of the resulting product shorter. Upcycling textiles, therefore, is a more sustainable option.

Upcycling Aluminum

three succulents in upcycled aluminum can containers on white shelf with brackets

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

In West Africa, scrap aluminum is being used to create cooking pots and utensils. In 1988, Marc Newson created an aluminum sofa from the reclaimed material. Aluminum continues to be lauded for its flexible nature and ability to be crafted into sleek designs. With the damaging environmental affects of mining aluminum, recycling and upcycling are becoming popular alternatives. Recycling is now the main source of this malleable metal in the United States and is often used to manufacture soda and beer cans. But, the uses don't end there. Secondhand aluminum has been used to create musical instruments, furniture, and vehicles.

Upcycling Glass

old glass containers upcycled into new vase and storage containers

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Glass that hasn't been mixed with any other materials can easily be recycled, but that hasn't stopped people from upcycling it as well. Glass jars and bottles can be used to create household items such as vases, storage containers, and even planters for succulents.

Upcycling Industrial Waste

Pieces of scrap metal upcycled into paperweights and art objects

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

The rise of architectural upcycling is here. In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability--Designing for Abundance, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart envision a world where industrial production creates little waste and no toxic chemical pollution; this aspirational world is based on the concept of creating with recycling and reuse in mind. Research has been done to manufacture glass ceramics from industrial waste, which have been shown to be heat- and moisture-resistant and usable in kitchen appliances as well as in the electrical and space industries. Upcycle artists have also found themselves using these non-recyclable materials in the fabrication of art and furniture.

McDonough and Braungart believe that design should be non-destructive and harmonious with the environment to model the greatest designer — Mother Nature herself. Pending every industry's desire to produce with a zero waste mindset, upcyling habits will continue to rise.

View Article Sources
  1. Hawley, Jana M. "Textile Recycling." Handbook Of Recycling, 2014, pp. 211-217., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-396459-5.00015-5

  2. Back, Gu-Seul et al. "Exploring High-Strength Glass-Ceramic Materials For Upcycling Of Industrial Wastes." Metals And Materials International, vol. 21, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1061-1067., doi:10.1007/s12540-015-5288-7