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Up, Down, Re:Cycling

February 22, 2010

Re: cycling: its 'ups' and 'downs'

I think that by now we’re all quite familiar with the term recycling , but sometimes more precision is useful, and that’s where Up and Down – cycling come in. Here are some ideas, courtesy of Wikipedia :

Recycling involves processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution (from landfilling) by reducing the need for “conventional” waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to virgin production.[1][2] Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” waste hierarchy.

Recyclable materials include many kinds of glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles, and electronics. Although similar in effect, the composting or other reuse of biodegradable waste – such as food or garden waste – is not typically considered recycling.[2] Materials to be recycled are either brought to a collection center or picked up from the curbside, then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials bound for manufacturing.


Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. The goal of downcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials, reduce consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to virgin production. A clear example is plastic recycling, which turns the material into lower grade plastics.

Examples of downcycling

  • Increasing the recycle number of plastic recyclables (see above)
  • Recycling used office paper into toilet paper.
  • Transferring disposable batteries to lower-power devices (e.g. taking batteries from a digital camera to a TV remote)
  • Reusing defective car batteries for lower-power applications.
  • Reusing towels for other cleaning environments. (Or cutting up old clothes to use as cleaning rags.)
  • Often times, when people upcycle, individually downcycled parts are often involved.
  • Finding alternate purposes for obsolete technology. Such as using an older computer to play music while a newer computer is available for everyday purposes. Older MP3 players can play a similar role.
  • Keeping an older vehicle on a commercial utility fleet as an “extra” vehicle in case the newer ones need routine maintenance. However the older vehicle needs less maintenance since its used less.
  • Crushing a reusable brick to create a very much cheaper recycled aggregate substitute. Apart from the loss of value there is also a loss of energy. The embodied energy of the old brick is destroyed when it is crushed, and additional process energy is usually needed to crush it. So recycled brick aggregate can be a doubly downcycled product, not only losing monetary value but also losing energy and increasing CO2 emissions. This is typical of much downcycling.


Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.

Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling, which is the other half of the recycling process. For example, during the recycling process of plastics other than those used to create bottles, many different types of plastics are mixed together, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid, marked by the chasing arrows symbol and the number 7, is used in the manufacturing of bottles and in plastic lumber applications.[3]

Examples of do-it-yourself upcycling

Many creative individuals have found ways to create upcycling projects that anyone can do at home. Some of these projects include:

  • Creating wallets from tires [5]
  • Creating lawn furniture from old pallets [6]
  • Creating chairs from campaign signs [7]

Generally speaking, downcycling typically involves remanufacturing whereas upcycling takes a substance in its existing form and repurposes it.

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