Downcycling, recycling and upcycling explained

Did you know that a lot of the packaging we put into our recycling bins each week is actually downcycled? Here’s the lowdown on what that means and how downcycling compares with upcycling and recycling.

flat-packed cardborard ready for recycling (or downcycling!)

4 minutes to read


What is upcycling?

If you’re a Pinterest user, you’ve probably seen the word “upcycled” a lot. Upcycling is taking an item that might not be great quality, and creating something of higher value with it.

Upcycling is essentially repurposing a product that’s no longer of use in its current state or form, and creating something useful, artistic or downright brilliant!

One of the most widely upcycled items is the humble wooden pallet. Once reserved for warehouses and building sites, the trend in pallet upcycling has seen these seemingly boring items being turned into the most beautiful furniture, accessories and homeware. There’s now a booming trade in stunning pallet-based products on sites such as Etsy and Not On The High Street

So that’s upcycling, but what about recycling and how it differs from downcycling?

Recycling and downcycling, the differences

Recycling, in the purest sense of the word, is the process of breaking down a product into its component materials. These materials are then used to create an end product of equal value to the one that was broken down. 

Glass bottles and aluminium cans are examples of products that can be infinitely recycled, with no need to add in virgin (brand new, non-recycled) materials to maintain their quality. This is what makes glass and aluminium such great materials to use for packaging. As long as they are separated and put into the recycling system, they will come back, just as strong as they ever were.

So what’s downcycling?

Downcycling is still a form of recycling, but the “down” refers to the fact that, when the materials the product is made from are broken down, they can’t be made into a product of equal value without adding virgin materials.


However, this doesn’t make downcycling all bad! Without downcycled writing paper, we wouldn’t have recycled toilet paper. Without downcycled plastic bottles, we wouldn’t have fleece or some types of carpet. A lot of products that contain downcycled materials are also really long lasting. So whilst your plastic drink bottle is single use, the carpet it eventually becomes could be in someone’s home for 10 years or more.

close up of a beige carpet with a yellow cushion on it

Yes, all of these products will reach the end of their life eventually, or will need bolstering with new products to be useful. But without downcycling, they’d be deemed useless and sent to landfill far sooner than they currently are. 

Downcycling and a product’s life cycle

If you are trying to make more sustainable buying decisions, the answer isn’t always simply picking recycled products. Many companies who are focusing on sustainable business make it clear what will happen to their products long after you’ve used them. So, if you have time when shopping around for a product, ask the companies you’re thinking of buying from what happens to their products when they reach the end of their life. 

Some companies also promote a circular manufacturing process. This is where items are returned to the company who produced them, to be turned into new products. This not only makes sense from a business point of view – fewer new materials means lower costs – but also from an environmental perspective.

Another excellent way to keep track of where your plastic packaging ends up when you’ve finished with it, is to make ecobricks. One of the main purposes of ecobricking is to connect us with the materials we use, and by using them at home or in community-based projects, we can see exactly where they go and what good they’re doing.


Downcycling, recycling, upcycling all have their place

Without all three of these processes, there would be a vast amount of virgin materials being produced in order to make everyday products. So, even though downcycling seems like the worst of the bunch, remember it has its place. There are so many important and essential items created because of it.

three white toilet rolls stacked against a white background

Hooray for downcycling!

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