Upcycling/Recycling/Downcycling?

For quite some time, most North American cities have implemented waste programs, in an effort to minimize stuff ending up in landfills. The amount of waste outputs continue to be problematic for the environment, and challenging to deal with. The term “recycling” is usually used to describe many of these programs that attempt to cut down waste outputs. In general, recycling breaks down waste to form something new. But there is more to this than meets the eye, including other processes of “downcycling” and “upcycling”.

Upcycling

Upcycling reuses waste without destroying it to make something new, converting a material into something of greater value than the original. Examples include a designer taking fabric scraps and turning them into a handbag, and secondhand clothing. The final product becomes more valuable in its new form than recycled or broken down. Upcycling reduces consumption of new raw materials, energy, air and water pollution and overall emissions.  

up cycled jeans
My upcycled jeans

Recycling

This term is often used as a general word to describe the many ways of dealing with waste. It means to convert material into something approximately the same value as the original, by reducing a product into component materials and making something new. True recycling puts the materials back into the same product. A good example would be recycling scraps of fabric into its threads to create new cloth. 

Metals like aluminum and glass recycle well, resulting in new products of equal quality. In reality, recycling tends to create products of lesser quality material, because changing the essential nature of something alters its form. Much of the recycling to date is really downcycling. Often when recycling plastic other than soda or water bottles, it is mixed with other plastics to produce a hybrid of lower quality and molded into a cheaper product. To date, most recyclers of textile products are only able to use 100% cotton, 100% wool, or 100% polyester because of the predominance of blended fabrics, leaving a lot of textile waste that can’t be broken down.

Downcycling

Downcycling converts a material into a product of lesser value than the original, reducing the quality of the material over time. Sometimes downcycling can increase contaminants in the environment, because other chemicals are often added to make the materials useful again. Wearing clothing made from recycled bottles can contain toxins that should never lie against human skin. Downcycled paper used as insulation needs additional chemicals, such as fungicides to reduce mildew, which may off-gas toxins.

Downcycling can even be more expensive for businesses, because it forces some materials into more lifetimes (using more energy and other resources) than what they were originally designed for.

That’s not to say that all recycling is bad, but it is only a short term solution in dealing with the high volume of waste in our environment. When companies are transparent, it may be possible to understand what happens to the original materials that they are recycling to prolong a product’s life. At this point in our history, the best we can do is to delay materials ending up in the landfill by buying better, and using more quality recycled and upcycled products. Two clothing manufacturers that are engaging in reconditioning old clothing and reselling them are Eileen Fisher’s Renew Program, and Patagonia’s Worn Wear, which repairs and sells old Patagonia garments. Ultimately, manufacturers should design and produce better products, by incorporating waste into the lifecycle of a product.