Upcycling vs Recycling: Which is Better For Planet Earth?

upcycle vs recycle

From what we eat to the things we buy to the way we dispose of our household waste, our everyday choices affect not only us but also our environment. With every decision, we create an impact on the planet and its resources. And it is on us to make it as gentle and sustainable as possible. 

One of the ways we can live in harmony with the planet is by cutting back on the waste we produce by recycling and upcycling. 

We all have some idea about recycling, but what is upcycling? And how is it different from recycling? Read on as we dig deeper and break down these two pillars of waste reduction for you. 

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What is Recycling?

Recycling is not a new concept, we’ve all been taught about it in school, and many of us have made it a part of our daily lives. In simple words, recycling involves breaking a product down into raw materials that can then be reused to create something new. The basic idea is to scale back on things dumped in landfills and waterways. 

Recycling is essential to building a circular economy, where biodegradable and non-biodegradable items are kept in the consumption cycle for as long as possible instead of being discarded. 

Sadly, not everyone recycles, and many who do are unaware of what can or cannot be recycled. This leads to non-recyclables making their way into the recycling stream. The materials that are typically recycled include plastic bottles, aluminum cans, iron and metal scraps, wood, paper, and glass. 

For the longest time, the recycling rates in the US have been stuck in the mid-30s range. That’s why, in 2020, the US EPA set a goal of hitting a recycling rate of 50% by 2030. And it can only happen if we all pull our weight and start recycling more. 

How Can You Recycle the Right Way?

While businesses and industries can be mandated by regulations to ramp up their recycling, the responsibility to actively recycle our household waste is entirely on us. If you’re new to recycling, here are a few tips to get you started. 

Get to Know Your Local Recycling System: Once you’ve made up your mind to start recycling, you need to find out your nearest recycling system. It could be curbside bins where you deposit the recyclables, which will be collected by a recycling truck. Depending on your nearest recycling system, you might also need to drop them off at collection centers or the reprocessing plant itself.

Stick to Recyclables: You need to make sure the junk you’re sending into your curbside recycling bin can, in fact, be recycled. When in doubt, stick to surefire recyclables instead of sending something that can contaminate the recycling stream.

Here’s a laundry list of recyclables that almost every recycling center accepts - pizza boxes, newspapers, cereal boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, unbroken glass, aluminum cans, and foil.

Sorting plastic is relatively trickier, so it’s best to check with this guide to see how and where to recycle plastic bags or you can check your local recycling center which ones they accept.

You can use a heavy duty canvas laundry bag to carry these to the center.

Make Sure It’s Clean: One dirty item has the potential to contaminate the entire recycling stream. So, be sure to remove grease, food debris, and other hard-to-recycle stuff from the containers before tossing them in the recycling bin.

When sorting out the trash and the recycles, the first thing you should ask yourself is if the item can be repurposed in any way to keep it functional. And that’s where upcycling comes into the picture.

What is Upcycling?

Upcycling is becoming increasingly important in sustainable living. Like recycling, upcycling is a way of keeping the carbon footprint in check by extending the useful life of an object. In upcycling, you take something and make it better by improving its quality, functionality, and value. 

It’s a creative process of salvaging and giving a new lease of life to something old and discarded. Unlike recycling, where the material is broken down and processed to create something new, an upcycled item retains some of its original characteristics. You can make out what it was while also appreciating its new and better form- like turning egg cartons into plant starters, old tees into a dishcloth, flour sack kitchen towels into cleaning rags etc.

How is Upcycling Different From Recycling?

Both upcycling and recycling are ways to manage solid waste. While being united in saving trash from choking landfill and waterways, the two are quite different from one another. 

Upcycling focuses on enhancing the quality of the item by repurposing it for reuse, like turning an old pair of tattered denim or bottle caps into tea lights. In both examples, the pre-loved item is getting refashioned into something of higher quality, but it is still recognizable.  

Even those who’ve not witnessed the transformation of the upcycled items can make out that the tea lights were made out of wine bottle caps. In recycling, however, the object is destroyed to create new raw material, such as melting plastic bottles to create new plastic items. The quality of this new item may be similar to or lower than the original, but it’s highly unlikely that it’ll be of a better quality.  

While upcycling is creative, recycling is a practical process. You can repurpose and reuse items at home (many businesses upcycle, too!). But recycling (except composting) almost always requires you to drop off the items at a recycling center or into curbside bins. The recyclables are sorted, cleaned, and sent to a reprocessing plant, like a household waste recycling facility or a dedicated glass recycling setup. 

Turning Trash Into Treasure - 5 Upcycling Ideas

Upcycling is not just great for the planet. It’s a whole lot of fun too! Here are some examples of upcycling that you can try out at home.

  1. Old Clothes: Don’t throw out that ratty pair of jeans! Instead, turn it into a pair of shorts or a messenger bag. If you’re up for it, you can even salvage torn tees or jeans by adding embroidery or patchwork.
  2. Broken Furniture: There’s no denying that upcycled furniture always stands out from mass-produced pieces. A worn-out bookcase can be glammed up with a fresh coat of paint. Give your old furniture a makeover with pastel shapes or mix n match hues. If you’re feeling adventurous, try distressing the boring pieces of furniture with sandpaper.
  3. Cardboard: Do you throw out egg cartons or recycle them? How about turning them into a seed starter for your kitchen garden or a bird feeder? As for cardboard boxes, you can reuse them as office storage boxes or give your furry pets a cozy sleeping space.
  4. Glassware: You can get creative with old glassware, like turning wine bottles into decorative lamps by wrapping fairy lights around them. If you were planning to recycle mason jars, see if you can make them last longer at your home by turning them into planters, vases, centerpieces, or even soap dispensers.

  5. Tin Cans: Upcycling tin cans is perfect for someone who enjoys crafting. With some spray paint, fabric, and decorative material, you can jazz them up into planters, floral centerpieces, stationary holders, wind chimes, and candle holders - the list is endless!

All this also applies to business owners. Upcycling and repurposing items can not only help you meet your sustainability goals but also lower the cost of production or operations. It’ll not only benefit the planet but also do your business’ bottom line a huge favor.

Upcycling vs Recycling? Which is Better for the Planet

Both upcycling and recycling are ways to minimize the waste that ends up in methane-emitting landfills or makes its way to oceans, seas, and rivers, harming aquatic life. Recycling involves the destruction of waste to create new usable items. By reusing materials, you reduce the extraction of new materials from nature.

 Even the process of collection, transportation, and reprocessing of recyclables is way less energy-intensive. For example, it takes 79%-88% less energy and resources to make products from recycled plastic than virgin material. 

However, recycling alone won’t help solve the climate change problem. The recycling rates are low, and many hard-to-recycle items end up in the stream. Instead, we should focus on reducing our waste to begin with. Upcycling can help with that by extracting the maximum utility out of pre-loved items. It’s a good idea to check if an item can be repurposed and reused in any way before dumping it (if it’s recyclable) in the recycling bin.

What is Downcycling?

Yes, there is such a thing as downcycling. As we mentioned before, the recycling process may leave you with a new product that may or may not match the quality of the original material. If it’s of lower quality and functionality, it has been downcycled. E.g., if after recycling a plastic bottle, the new material isn’t structurally strong enough to make another bottle. In this case, this weaker plastic can be used to make carpet or fleece fibers. 

Many recyclables break down with each recycling cycle, such as plastic and metal scraps. These can no longer be used for high-quality applications but can still be used to make an entirely different product than the original. 

Final Thoughts

Upcycling vs recycling – which is better? Come to think of it, both are important in solving the waste problem. Each process has a different role to play in saving the product away from landfills by keeping it in the consumption cycle. However, before tossing something in the recycling bin, check if you can repurpose it. With little imagination and effort, you can make your old household items last way longer. So, let your creativity flow!

Author: Karen Lamar

Karen is the Chief Content Officer at Organic Cotton Mart. She has a Master's Degree in Environmental Science from NC State with a special focus in Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy. Since her High School days, she has been an Environmentalist and was the President of her High School's Environmental Club for 3 years before starting her freshman year at NC State. She has a deep knowledge and understanding of various environment-friendly movements like zero waste, minimalistic living, recycling, and upcycling.

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