Recycling vs. Upcycling vs. Reuse

Sometimes it feels as if we live in a world of waste with little consideration of what happens to materials after their useful lives… toss it and forget it. This mentality strains our planet and has trickle down effects for future generations. In response, companies, individuals, and systems are embodying the ethos of reducing, reusing, and repurposing resources to minimize waste and environmental impacts. So, what are some of the ways that this is being addressed?

Recycling vs. Upcycling vs. Reuse – What’s the difference?

Recycling involves the process of converting waste into reusable materials. It typically includes some degree of material collection, material sorting, processing, and then remanufacturing those discarded items into something new. Depending on the material being recycled, this can itself be energy and resource-intensive, with its own systemic issues around material contamination, material transportation, and societal concerns where processing takes place. But typically, the act of recycling a material into either new portions of the same material or into a feedstock for something else, is better for the environment than the extraction of virgin material.

Upcycling refers to the creative reuse of materials or products to create items of higher value or quality. Unlike traditional recycling that breaks down materials into raw components and builds them back up, upcycling involves transforming discarded products and materials into something new and improved. Requiring innovation, this waste practice many times results in a item that is more aesthetically appealing or functional, an enhanced version of the raw material. Although not as energy intensive as recycling, upcycling sometimes requires processing to repurpose materials, depending on the purpose of their end use. One that many people have seen or think of is old barn wood being dismantled at its original site and then being reused as flooring, wall, or ceiling covering in a different building.

Reusing materials involves using items or products multiple times in their original state for their original purpose, or for a different purpose without significantly altering their form or structure. The least energy intensive of the waste diversion processes, reuse emphasizes extending the lifespan of an item through repair, refurbishment, or redistribution wherever and whenever possible. Reusing materials is the most sustainable approach as it reduces the demand for new resource extraction and conserves energy by keeping the item in its original form through multiple use cycles. Think of this as the clothes ‘hand me down’ from an older sibling to a younger sibling of the sustainability world.

With varying degrees of processing requirements, the above strategies are all ultimately aligned with the end goal of diverting usable materials from landfills and combating the single-use consumption epidemic. By diverting materials from landfills, recycling, upcycling, and reuse conserves valuable resources, curtails pollution, and fosters a circular economy.

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Term of the Day

Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) is a method to compare various greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential. One metric ton of a greenhouse gas is converted to the equivalent number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential.

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