Upcycling vs Recycling: What's the Difference?

What are the differences between upcycling and recycling, and is either better for sustainability?
April 11, 2022
2 minutes

Have you ever wondered about the difference between upcycling and recycling? Both are highly valuable solutions and can be excellent ways to boost your own sustainability – whether as part of personal goals or your brand’s wider aim of promoting environmental sustainability. But what are the differences between upcycling and recycling, and is either necessarily better for sustainability overall?

Upcycling vs Recycling: What's the difference?

It’s easy to get a little lost when discussing the differences between upcycling and recycling. However, there are actually a lot less subtle than they might appear on the surface. In fact, upcycling and recycling are two very distinct procedures, but both can contribute to reducing landfills and wastage overall.

First, let’s consider upcycling. At its most basic, upcycling is taking one product and repurposing it into something new. A good example of upcycling could be taking your old curtains, which would otherwise be destined for the trash, and repurposing them into a fabric to make cushions from. Alternatively, you could upcycle old bottles into outdoor plant pots and the like.

By contrast, with recycling, an old product is broken down into its base materials and made into something entirely new. This process is more energy-intensive than upcycling, which can usually rely on crafting skills alone. However, it’s often much easier to implement from a wide-scale perspective and does an excellent job at providing manufacturers with materials that have a less damaging impact on the environment. For example, taking the old bottles example, these can often bebroken back down into plastic, allowing new products – such as new plastic toys– to be made from them without going through the energy-intense process of manufacturing new plastics.

Which is Better: Upcycling vs. Recycling?

It’s worth considering that most products can only be recycled a set number of times before they will still end up in landfills. However, upcycling is often only suitable on a smaller scale for individual crafting projects, and so neither is necessarily better for environmental sustainability than the other.

With this in mind, if your business is looking to promote its environmental sustainability, starting out with recycled materials is key. Encouraging your customers to upcycle the materials in their own time can further help, reducing the number of materials ending up in landfills. This concept was something that the Innocent Smoothie brand demonstrated well. Not only did they use all-natural ingredients in their products and recycled materials for packaging, but they also offered craft ideas for children on the back of every packet to try and encourage families to get involved with upcycling more often.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been looking for a way to promote your own environmental sustainability, there are several key things you could consider. Indeed, both recycling and upcycling are excellent ways to prevent materials from ending up in landfills, promoting your environmental sustainability overall. However, it’s important to consider that, while upcycling is usually carried out on a more personal level – for example, crafting plant pots out of old tubs – recycling may be more achievable for a business to promote. Nevertheless, both are valuable solutions, and so both should be worth considering overall.