The difference between recycling, upcycling and downcycling

I’ve tried to make a brief summary to let you guys learn all about waste management and the place upcycling has in the waste minimization story.
So here it goes 🙂

Waste minimization and waste management hierarchy

There is a certain hierarchy when it comes to waste management. This is a classification of waste management options in order of their environmental impact. The waste hierarchy has taken many forms over the past decade, but the basic concept has remained the cornerstone of most waste minimization strategies. The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The European Union Waste Framework Directive 2008 stipulates a five step hierarchy but it is the more common know “3R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle” that have been considered to be the base of environmental awareness and a way of promoting ecological balance through conscious behavior and choices.


Reduce, reuse, recycle

The 3 R ‘s represent the Waste Hierarchy from the most to the least desirable. Many of the things we currently throw away could be reused again with just a little thought and imagination.

Reduce – to buy less and use less.

Reuse – elements of a discarded item or items are used againglobeguyWaste20Reduction

Recycle – is the process to change items considered as waste into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials. Most of the time energy and water is used to change the physical properties of the waste material.

Within recycling there is distinction between two types:

Upcycling– converting low-value materials into high-value products (more desirable)

Downcycling – converting valuable products into low-value raw materials (less desirable)


When you upcycle an item, you aren’t breaking down the materials. You may be refashioning it — like cutting a t-shirt into strips of yarn — but it’s still made of the same materials as when you started. Upcycling only requires your own creativity and elbow grease.

But what exactly is Upcyling?

Upcycling is the process of converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often beautiful. When you upcycle you are giving an item a new purpose. But why would you upcycle?

1.  in doing so, you reduce the consumption of new raw materialscradle_to_cradle

William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions,… .

2.  furthermore, you reduce the amount of waste you create

“Upcycling is designed to work in opposition to consumer culture, encouraging people to think of new and innovative ways to use things, instead of simply buying new consumer goods. It also benefits the environment, by promoting reuse over discarding whenever possible.”

Plain and simple, upcycling makes a positive impact on the environment.

From old to new, but with a twist…

Upcycling is not a new concept. Some of the best examples of modern-day upcycling come from the 1930s-40s when families had very little economic or material resources. In this age of thrift, they reused almost everything, repurposing items over and over until they were no longer useful.
Further more, upcycling is a way of life for people in developing countries as raw materials are expensive. So they use what they can find to create bowls, baskets, jewelry and other useful and beautiful items.
It has yet to earn itself mainstream popularity, but its necessity as a goal for how we should be progressing makes its definition important. Upcycling has seen an increase in use due to its current marketability and the lowered cost of reused materials. Entire communities of upcyclers arise, with people trading expertise, goods, and materials, for example Etsy.

Upcycling vs. Downcycling


Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling. Downcycling involves converting converting valuable products into low-value raw materials. For example: creating recycled papers from paper, creating rags from clothing,…
Although downcycling helps the planet because it keeps things out of landfills (for a time at least) many times it will eventually end up there. (Want to know more about Belgian waste management? Read about it here)

Want to upcycle?

There are all sorts of examples of upcycling, ranging from building houses out of entirely discarded materials to turning plastic bags into yarn for knitting. Everyone can upcycle, which is part of the appeal, and people can participate at whatever level they feel comfortable with, from delving through dumpsters to salvage useful things to re-using containers rather than tossing them or throwing them out.

There are two ways to support the upcycling movement. Create items yourself or purchase ready-made items from upcycled materials. Both make a positive impact on the environment. Both reward you with something beautiful or useful product.
Do you want to share your vision on waste management? Feel free to leave a comment!

Check out my upcycling projects…