Preventing downcycling by upcycling

Over the years, I’ve written extensively on topics related to recycling and also touched on the other “cycling” variations such as precycling and freecycling.

The word “recycling” also tends to cover processes such as reusing and repurposing. There’s nothing wrong with using an umbrella term to cover a number of scenarios, but when it comes down to it, not all the “cycling’s” are created equal – and you’ll soon see why.

To illustrate, let’s look at yet another couple of related term – downcycle and upcycle

Recycling, in its strictest definition, is about reclaiming the materials from item X and then produce another item X from them. An example of this is the recycling of engine oil. Used engine oil can be filtered and distilled to create new engine oil of the same quality. Oil doesn’t really wear out it seems, it just gets dirty.


Downcycling is where you reclaim a material for reuse in a product of lesser value or in some way compromise the integrity of the material through the reclamation process; meaning it cannot be used in making the original product.

In a perfect world, a plastic bottle would be easily recycled into another plastic bottle or of something of even greater value. In the case of plastics with a resin code of 1 (PET), this can happen; as it is can for aluminium cans and glass bottles.

But HDPE or resin code number 2 plastics, commonly used in their first incarnation as milk, juice and water bottles, may not be able to be truly recycled. They cannot be used again for food-grade items.

These are often downcycled into things like tables, chairs and trash bins and require extra treatment in terms of energy and chemicals to do so. While durable plastic products can be created it takes an awful lot of plastic bottles to create these items.

Additionally, the HDPE may be blended into other plastic resin types which then turns them into a “resin code 7” – and that is then the end of the line. Once that product has outlived its usefulness, its next destination will likely be landfill.

Another example is paper – good quality writing paper cannot be recycled into more of the same – it is downcycled into items such photocopy paper, cardboard and toilet paper.


Upcycling, as you may have already guessed, converts waste materials into new materials or products of higher quality or better “environmental value”.

  Avoiding downcycling, embracing upcycling

While all this is interesting and will be a great way to impress your friends with your incredible knowledge at your next dinner party; what does it mean for you? Are downcycling and upcycling just more words without any application in our everyday lives?

While recycling in all its forms is wonderful and should always occur, it’s important we remember that recycling not only requires energy, but certain types of materials may require more energy and chemical processing than others – and even then will only produce items of lower environmental value.

One way we can avoid the downcycling trap is to make more informed purchase decisions. For example, let’s say brand X’s bottle is made from plastic resin code 1 materials and brand Y is plastic resin code 2. Assuming the two products are otherwise identical, brand X may the the better choice.

Bearing in mind the issues connected with downcycling also comes back to a repetitive theme – it’s not just what we use, but how much of it we consume. We shouldn’t try to justify hyperconsumption just because the product or the packaging it comes in can be recycled (or downcycled); harking back to the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” concept being in a specific order for good reason.

Upcycling in our own lives on the other hand can be seen as anticipating the waste and finding something else to do with it – to repurpose.

For example and at a very simplistic level, if you want a garden pot and also need to buy juice; you don’t necessarily need to buy the pot. You could cut down the juice bottle once emptied for the purpose.

While the plant pot you would buy may well have originated from downcycled materials such as discarded juice bottles, by repurposing it yourself, you are cutting out the middleman and the resources required for the downcycling process – and saving cash too. The juice bottle has now been given improved environmental value – it has been upcycled instead of downcycled.

Another example is turning disposable shopping bags into useful items.

Prevent downcycling of some items – upcycle them at home!