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What Is Upcycling — and How Does It Benefit the Planet?

Upcycling has grown increasingly popular in the sustainability world. Here's what upcycling means and how it benefits the planet.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

While you're most likely familiar with how to recycle, whether it be recycling plastics or textile recycling, you may not be familiar with upcycling.

Upcycling has grown increasingly popular in the world of sustainability. The Instagram tag #upcycle currently has over five million posts, including images of upcycled art, clothes, DIY furniture, and more. And it's definitely a trend we want to keep around.

So what does upcycling look like? And how can it help the planet? We're here to answer all your questions on upcycling—as well as give you some creative upcycling ideas.

What Is Upcycling?

By definition, to "upcycle" means to recycle or reuse something in a way that increases the original object's value. In other words, upcycling is taking something old and creating something new.

The best way to understand upcycling is to compare it to downcycling. Both are types of recycling. Downcycling is the kind of recycling we usually think of—recycling paper or plastic, for example. These materials are broken down and reused to create a product that is considered less valuable than the original. For example, most recycled paper, like old newspapers, is considered to be lower-grade paper.

Upcycling is the same process of reusing old materials, but it creates something more valuable or of a higher quality. Examples of upcycling include using materials from plastic bottles to make new shoes or reclaimed wood to make quality furniture.

Essentially, the difference between downcycling and upcycling is that downcycling creates a lower-grade version of the same thing and upcycling transforms old materials into a new, different, high-quality item.

Upcycling also supports a circular economy. A circular economy is a system in which goods are used and reused multiple times rather than getting discarded after one use. This system is more sustainable because it relies on using what we already have rather than constantly creating new products out of new materials.

How Does Upcycling Help the Planet?

Upcycling is incredibly beneficial for the planet. It accomplishes several things at once: It reuses materials we already have, and it creates something new.

Giving used products a new life reduces the need to use unethically sourced or unsustainable materials, like plastic, to create new products. Think about shoes made from recycled water bottles. Not only does upcycling plastic prevent a build-up of plastic waste, but it also provides new shoes without using new resources.

The entire upcycling process has three major benefits over downcycling.

1. Minimizes the Extraction of Natural Resources

When you upcycle something, you reduce the need to extract raw materials or create synthetic materials because you already have what you need. This can go a long way for industries that consume a lot of resources—both natural and unnatural. Think about how many trees we can save if all our furniture is made with pre-used wood.

2. Reduces Landfill Waste

Upcycling also saves your original product from a fate in the landfill. Even if the original product is recyclable, plastics can only be downcycled once or twice before the product breaks down.

Eventually, our recyclables may end up in a landfill, which can be harmful—especially if they aren't biodegradable. But with upcycling, products can be turned into something that can last much longer.

3. Less Manufacturing, Fewer Carbon Emissions

Minimizing the consumption of resources has two benefits: preserving natural resources and reducing the need for manufacturing.

The process of turning raw materials into a finished product can come with hefty carbon emissions, especially during mass manufacturing. In the U.S. alone, the industry sector produced about 23% of carbon emissions in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Plus, recycling still produces carbon emissions. While downcycling is much better than sending something to the landfill, it's even better to upcycle.

How Can You Upcycle?

Upcycling may sound intimidating. (Turning plastic bottles into quality shoes certainly doesn't sound easy!) But there are plenty of ways you can upcycle and contribute to the circular and sustainable economy.

1. Shop From Businesses That Upcycle

This one's pretty easy. If you don't feel confident in your DIY upcycling abilities, don't sweat it! There are plenty of businesses out there that do the work for you.

For beauty, there's UpCircle, which uses upcycled ingredients (like used coffee grounds from coffee shops) in its skincare products. Then there's the clothing brand Re/Done, which makes new duds from unwanted clothing and repurposed vintage materials. You can even buy upcycled food products from Renewal Mill, which uses upcycled ingredients like leftover soybean pulp from soy milk production.

Every time you shop from a business that upcycles, you're supporting a more sustainable industry. Plus, it proves to retailers that there's a demand for upcycled items of all kinds.

2. Give Your Old Items a New Life

If you're feeling creative, there are several easy upcycling projects you can try at home. Look into these DIY home decor ideas, like turning an old rug into a pinboard. Or try these easy ways to upcycle old clothes, including turning a t-shirt into a hanging plant holder.

Want something a little more advanced? You can try turning your TV into a cat bed like blogger Keltainen Kahvipannu (see above!), or crotcheting a tote bag using plastic bags. The opportunities are endless!