What’s the Difference Between Recycling, Downcycling, and upcycling?




Everyone has heard the common mantra of environmentalism: reuse, reduce, recycle. But what happens to the plastic water bottle or cardboard box when you toss it in the recycling bin?


These products are usually recycled, downcycled, or upcycled into a reusable product, whether that plastic bottle becomes a new pair of shoes or the cardboard box becomes sketch paper.


The differences between these three actions are subtle, but all are equally important to contributing to a circular economy.


What Is Recycling

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new resources. When discarded products arrive at a recycling center, they are split into different categories based on their material, such as metal, glass, paper, cardboard, and plastic, then further sorted into more distinct categories. The separated items are sent to facilities that totally break down the materials to their raw state to create something new.


Why We Recycle

For example, recycling one aluminum can uses less than 5% of the energy used in creating one from virgin material. However, new resources are also mixed in with recycled items to improve their durability, adding to the energy consumption of mining raw materials, like oil or tree pulp. Even a shoe recycled from plastics requires new glue, dyes, and additives to increase integrity and consumer appeal. However, recycling still creates new jobs, saves energy, and mitigates climate change by using products that would otherwise end up emitting greenhouse gasses in a landfill.


What Is Downcycling

Downcycling is a process in which used products are refabricated to produce new items of slightly lesser quality. While many recyclable products, like glass, paper, and aluminum can be reused over and over without much change in usability, plastic products are where we see a significant decrease in quality each time it is downcycled, according to Our World in Data.


What items can be downcycled?

Plastic items tend to lose their durability, although these weaker plastics can be pelletized and reused to create, for example, fleece or polyester in clothing and carpeting, which can then be downcycled into lumber products. However, once the plastic is rendered useless for recycling, it often ends its journey in landfill, where it emits methane and breaks down into microplastics that harm ecosystems, food and water supplies, and our own bodies.


What is Upcycling

Upcycling is a process in which materials are converted to something of greater value without breaking it down. Some companies create high-quality clothing or bags from large-production fabric scraps, clocks from vinyl records, or light fixtures from appliances. However, there is still energy consumption in powering factories, using gas for transportation, and creating new paints, tools, varnishes etc to revamp the item.


How we can Upcycle

Some eco-friendly companies participate in net-zero emission pledges to offset their energy usage. It’s also easy to upcycle old materials for DIY home projects, like making shelves from old license plates, leather jewelry from old belts, or flower vases from mason jars. If you can recognize the former life of your new product, it’s probably been upcycled.


Incorporating Reusability into Your Lifestyle

Whether you recycle old soda cans, purchase a fleece jacket from downcycled plastic, or upcycle your old fencing into new raised garden beds, every small action makes a large impact on our environment.


At a corporate level, all of the electronics that our team at Topanga uses for our staff (computers, headphones, etc) as well as all of the smartphones that we provide to our restaurant partners are refurbished and sourced from Backmarket.

We’d love to move to using recycled, upcycled, or downcycled products for our restaurant packaging; if you’re a manufacturer who specializes in reusable products, contact our team today!



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