What Is Recycling and How Does It Differ From Upcycling?

Millions of Americans participate in the weekly ritual of placing their recyclables out on the curb for collection. But what is recycling exactly? And is it the best way to reuse old materials?

For starters, recycling is the process that turns old and discarded materials into raw materials that can be used to manufacture new products. Using recycled materials reduces the demand for new ones, which saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves natural resources, including lumber, petroleum and, yes, even water. Yet in spite of all its positives, recycling is still just one step above burning or disposing of materials on the waste hierarchy:

upcycling vs recycling

Image: Waste Hierarchy, Drstuey, CC by 3.0

Why? Because recycling, like incineration and disposal, decreases the value of the original material. An intact soda bottle is always more valuable than a pile of plastic pellets, just as a dresser is more valuable than a pile of wood scraps. That’s why, when given the choice, you should always try to reuse something rather than recycle it. But if you can’t reuse it as intended, you can always upcycle it.

What Is Upcycling?

Whereas recycling breaks down discarded materials into raw materials, upcycling instead uses those discarded materials to create something new with equal or greater value than the original.

A very popular example is repurposing old furniture in place of buying something brand new, such as this dresser converted into a bookcase by Heather Christian Iglesias of Viral Upcycle:

what is upcycling

Image courtesy of Viral Upcycle

Another example, courtesy of Gail Wilson of My Repurposed Life, involves reusing an old headboard to create a new coat rack:

what is upcycling

Image courtesy of My Repurposed Life

Cindy Fortin, of Upcycled Design Lab, flipped the script by upcycling tin can lids to create a shiny metallic surface for her old table top:

what is upcycling

Image courtesy of Upcycled Design lab

The benefits of upcycling are many and varied. For the individual, it saves money that would otherwise be spent on new furniture, décor and goods. But the large-scale benefits are reducing the amount of discarded materials sent to landfills and saving even more resources than recycling alone would.

Upcycling has even spawned its own little industry. Entire companies are devoted to the idea of turning what most would consider trash into something to be treasured. There’s Bottle Cutting Inc, creators of the Kinkajou bottle cutter, as well as Hipcycle, an online seller of all things upcycled, such as these coasters made from circuit boards.

How You Can Start Upcycling

The key to upcycling is to embrace your creative side. Even something as basic as an old plant pot can be remade into something both functional and beautiful with a little imagination. Here are some quick tips to follow to get into the upcycling habit:

  • Always Be Scavenging: Look around your home for items you no longer use or need and use them as a jumping off point. Roadside trash and freebies are also ideal ways to find hidden treasure.
  • Think Before You Toss: Floorboards, old window panes, even toilet paper rolls are all materials that can be reused in some fashion. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but as long as you save them you will always have materials to work with.
  • Quality Over Cosmetics: As far as selecting materials goes, Heather Christian Iglesias says to “choose pieces based on quality, not their shell or current façade. You can always sand, strip or paint items to your taste.”

If you aren’t sure whether something is worth upcycling versus recycling, just remember that with a little ingenuity you can turn virtually any trash into treasure. Looking for some ideas to get you started? Here are 10 upcycling ideas to draw inspiration from. And be sure to check out the latest projects from My Repurposed Life (Facebook), Viral Upcycle (Pinterest) and Upcycled Design Lab (Facebook).

Main Image:
Cactus Tree Lamp“, Karen Green, CC by 2.0
Recycle“, Vegan Feast Gathering, CC by 2.0