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Upcycle vs. Recycle: Breaking Down the True Definitions

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Upcycle vs. Recycle: Breaking Down the True Definitions

Some words in the environmental world get jumbled up easily. Or worse, they lose their true meaning.

Just think: when did you last think about the difference between upcycle versus recycle, let alone natural versus organic? Granted, the natural and organic debate is a whole ‘nother beast, so let’s focus on upcycling and recycling for now.

Knowing the difference can help you make even more eco-conscious and informed decisions when shopping. This applies whether you're an online shopper or prefer a good old brick and mortar. Stick with us and we’ll show you the truth behind these two philosophies.

What’s the difference between upcycle vs. recycle?

 

Let’s start with a term that’s usually more familiar to anybody interested in going green. Recycle. It’s part of the old holy trinity of environmentalism--reuse, reduce, recycle. So what does happen to a water bottle after it’s tossed in the recycling bin? Or an old cardboard shipping box your new espresso maker came with? How about a glass bottle that used to house your favorite olive oil?

Here’s how it goes: when something arrives at a recycling center, it’s sorted into different categories based on material type, namely different types of paper, plastic, metal, cardboard, and glass. Within these categories, materials get sorted into more specific piles. For instance, glass bottles are sorted by their color. Once separated, these items are shipped to various facilities where they’re broken down into materials that make new products.

Here is where the line between upcycle versus recycle is drawn.

Essentially, upcycling is a type of recycling. When you upcycle something, you take a specific part or a whole item and reuse it in its raw form. For instance, someone might stitch up old shirts into a colorful quilt without breaking down the fabric through chemical processes. In comparison, recycling old shirts might require shredding them or melting them to make a new fabric.

Another common upcycling project is taking old furniture and transforming them into stylish, bespoke pieces. A DIY furniture refurbishing project can be something as small as slapping fresh coat of paint on a vintage dresser from your local secondhand store. Alternatively, you might accept a challenge and design an accent living room wall fashioned out of reclaimed wood.

If you’re new to upcycling, you might start with more modest home good DIYs like turning old glass mason jars into flower vases or converting large agate stones into unique bookends.

So let’s recap what upcycle versus recycle means before we go on. Upcycling something is turning a part or the entirety of something into another useful item. This new item can serve the same purpose or a completely different one, depending on its current condition and what you need. Typically, upcycling something doesn’t require you to break down the old material through chemical processes.

On the other hand, recycling is totally breaking down an old item to its previous raw state and creating something new. Similar to upcycling, this new item can serve the same purpose or a new one. More often than not, recycled materials are mixed in with new resources to make them usable and improve their integrity.

So why is knowing the difference between the two important?

What are the benefits of upcycle vs. recycle?

First, let’s go over some basic benefits in terms of upcycle versus recycle.

Benefits of upcycling

Benefits of recycling

Doesn’t require additional energy

Professionally handled

Saves materials that would otherwise get wasted

Saves materials that would otherwise get wasted

Reduces need for new materials

Reduces water-, landfill-, and air pollution

Supports niche businesses like reclaimed furniture restorationists

Improves local and national economy by generating recycling-related jobs

Promotes reduce and reuse mindsets

Conserves non-renewable resources

Offers you full control over after-life use

Reduces incineration operations

Saves you money on new items, e.g. furniture

Provides cash incentive for recycled items

 As you can see, there is some overlap between the two practices. Both help conserve resources overall, reduce pollution, decrease landfill and incinerator use, and boost economies. If tinkering with would-be discarded objects isn’t your thing, no worries. There are lots of upcycle shops that offer high quality products minus the guilt.

When you buy from them instead of the big guys, you’re supporting small businesses that truly want to make a difference--not just reduce waste but actually elevate old items into even more useful products.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of shopping for recycled/recyclable and upcycled/upcyclable products, let’s dive into the environmental costs of both industries.

What is the environmental cost of upcycling and recycling?

 

Let’s start with some positive stats. One of the most popularly recycled products are aluminum cans and containers. Recycling one can saves 96% more energy than producing a completely new one procured from fresh materials. Similarly, one plastic bottle saves upwards of 76% of the energy it would take to generate one from scratch.

As for paper, the EPA noted that in 2017, the paper and paperboard recycling industry saved 44.2 tons of material. To put it into perspective, this translates to pulling out 31 million cars off the road for a year.

Our point is this: recycling saves energy, no matter how little. Nevertheless, we can’t help but ignore the fact that recycling still uses up new energy. Moreover, in the recycling industry, new materials are commonly mixed in with the old. This means many recycling operations are still mining raw materials, whether it’s pulp from trees or oil from a reserve.

One example is recycling old tennis shoes. The average sneaker is made of different types of plastics and even hybrid fabric-plastic materials. These are a little tricky to upcycle, so recycling them and breaking them down is the more popular default.

Here’s why recycling can be wasteful. Recycling breaks down materials to a point where new material needs to be added for the end product to work just as well. So for shoes made of recycled plastic, you still need fresh glues, dyes, and additives to make them marketable and durable enough.

To be frank, the same can be said for upcycling. Turning old items into new ones requires energy in the form of electricity powering a building or factory, the gas for transportation costs, or additional materials it takes to revamp the item. The latter includes new paints, threads, tools, inks, varnishes, etc.

However, the bulk of energy used in upcycling is usually found in shipping costs. Even so, eco-friendly companies participate in net-zero emissions pledges. Beyond transportation, these businesses also source recycled and recyclable shipping materials.

So how can I successfully discern between upcycled versus recycled items?

How do I spot the differences between upcycled and recycled products?

 

If you can recognize materials in a product from its previous life, chances are it’s upcycled. For instance, a tote bag made of denim with pockets is easy to spot as an old pair of jeans. That’s because the material hasn’t been broken down to its raw state.

By contrast, a recycled product might look nothing like it did before. Let’s go back to our sneaker example for a second. When browsing a shoe company’s website, the pair you’re eyeing might have something in its description along the lines of “Made from recycled plastic bottles, old t-shirts, and discarded shoes.”

Evidently, the shoe looks nothing like an old plastic bottle someone drank out.

Again, this is because the material’s been melted, pulverized, mixed, molded, and everything in between to give you something brand new--which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just one of the perks of buying recycled products. They’re full of surprises that make you marvel at how innovative the recycling industry can be.

Another thing to consider with these items is that while most recycled goods are recyclable, they might be specific to the company you purchased from. These businesses typically hold proprietary secrets and their own recycling methods that allow them to use the materials over and over. Unfortunately, many municipal facilities won’t be able to process these products made of various materials.

 

As for upcycled goodies, these are usually infinitely reusable. Even when your item has reached the end of its life cycle, you might still be able to recycle it, and the circle goes around again. One invaluable habit you might already practice is donating items you no longer need but are still perfectly usable.

Sure, it might cost you a trip to the thrift shop or a few days on Facebook asking friends and family if they need said item, but it’s worth it. Chances are, they’ll appreciate the gesture and might even take up the habit of upcycling their own belongings in the future.

Does EcoRoots have any upcycled or recycled items?

The short answer is yes! We’ll begin with a big, big thing (something we hold near and dear to our green hearts), which is our completely recyclable packaging. We absolutely appreciate our clients and take pride in being able to share our wonderful eco-friendly products across the nation. We do so using fully recyclable shipping materials.

Additionally, if we ever use paper fillers for delicate packages, we encourage you to upcycle it in any way you deem appropriate. Use it to pad boxes with fragile items, fill up potpourri bowls, mulch your new spring plants, bulk up your compost pile--the list goes on.

Lastly, since we never resort to plastic in our packaging, you don’t have to worry about throwing away unrecyclable plastic bits here.

Lots of our products also come in recyclable containers like our paper cardboards, glass bottles, and aluminum containers. Everything else can either be composted or upcycled into personalized containers for small home goods or your own DIY concoctions.

For instance, you might upcycle this metal tin from our reef-safe sunscreen into a jewelry holder or into actual jewelry. We’re not kidding! A quick Google search will show you just how creative you can get with upcycling metals from your own home.

 

You might also be a fan of our bamboo toothbrushes but feel weirdly wasteful when it’s time to compost these bad boys. Once you pull off the recyclable nylon bristles, you can upcycle the natural handles into several things. A popular use is sticking them into the ground to mark seedlings. If you want to keep using the toothbrush as a different kind of brush, you might take it to your bathroom wall and scrub away any soap scum between the tiles. It’s much more precise than a sponge or a wide head brush, and won’t cost you a thing.

If you love lighting up a candle when you’re having a bad day (or any kind of day, really), then you know how easy it is to accumulate glass jars. A great thing about glass containers is they’re so versatile. Some suggestions we have are turning old candle jars into pencil holders, coin banks, snack cups, or even planters. Just make sure it’s a plant that doesn’t require much water drainage like a spider plant, pothos, or any succulent.

Our candles come with a metal lid, and these can be upcycled into even more creative uses. Think grain or spice storage, cotton swab holder, tea jar, DIY lotion container, or cotton pad organizer, for starters. We can keep going with our recyclable and upcyclable packaging, but you get the idea.

 

 

The moral of the story is this: switching to environmentally-friendly products is a natural shift to supporting upcycling and recycling. Though upcycling is a distinct type of recycling, both save energy use, cut down on pollution, and reduce material consumption. Even though you might be tempted to simply throw away old items, think again!

Living an eco-friendly life can start with something as simple as using an old mason jar as a flower vase instead. We hope this upcycle versus recycle breakdown sparks some ideas of your own, no matter how complex.

Let us in on your creative genius and tag us on Instagram when your project is complete!

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