The terms ‘recycling’ and ‘upcycling’ are sometimes used interchangeably but the two processes are actually unrelated and very different from each other.
Recycling is an industrial process whereby objects are transformed into new materials and then used to make either the same product again (such as a can for drinks) or another product (such as something made from plastic). Recycling involves the destruction of waste in order to create something new.
Recyclables are collected — either from homes, commercial properties, industrial properties, or council-run recycling centres — and taken to a recycling plant. Here, the recyclables are sorted into types and then broken down and used to create new materials.
Some recyclables are 100 per cent recyclable (i.e. aluminium and glass) and some recyclables can be recycled but not 100 per cent because they become weaker through the recycling process (i.e. plastic and paper). In the case of plastic and paper, recycled materials are mixed with fresh materials in order to create new products.
Upcycling, based on The Cambridge English Dictionary is defined as: “The activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material”.
So, upcycling has nothing to do with the industrial process of recycling.
Instead, upcycling involves taking an item that would otherwise be waste and improving it in some way to make it useful again. Upcycling takes waste and creates something new from it in its current state.
However, upcycling isn’t just transforming objects into better versions of themselves; often, objects get repurposed to offer a different function entirely.
A plastic bottle, for example, can be transformed into all manner of different things — a face visor, a plant pot, a watering can, fairy lights, and a bird feeder are just a few ideas. The only limits to upcycling are your imagination and your skills because upcycling is highly creative and can involve a wide variety of techniques and materials to create the finished product.
When upcycling, the original form is retained and the object is recognisable, which gives it a story — you can see what it has been and also what it has become.
Recycling and upcycling in the waste hierarchy
A demonstrative process on how to deal with waste is called the waste hierarchy.
Based on consumer researches, it has been analyzed that Fashion industry is the one for which consumers are expecting to see more Upcycling initiatives.
Many brands have started going beyond sustainable materials and are also finding ways to introduce upcycling into their production process. Some commentators have framed this solution as part of “circular fashion“, an off-shoot of the circular economy concept, which challenges fashion’s linear production line that ends with clothes being discarded in a landfill.
This means using materials that would otherwise go to waste, pattern cut-offs, deadstock garments and limited runs of fabrics crying out for a second lease of life. So while it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the fabrication of new clothes, it does mean that designers are creating collections whilst considering the life-cycle of their pieces.
- In fashion, upcycling means prolonging the lifespan of a specific material, so it mainly involves clothes made by reusing a piece of fabric (either from unwanted clothes or deadstock material).
- Recycling in the fashion industry involves transforming different objects into fabrics and materials suitable for creating clothes and accessories (for example, some companies have found ways of turning rubber tyres into laptop bags or using plastic from discarded bottles to make bathing suits).
The main difference between the two is that for recycling you completely deconstruct the material and make it into new material, while for upcycling you use the material as it is and use it for something different.