Most of us consider recycling a viable solution to our growing waste issue. However, not all recycling is equal, especially when it comes to certain materials, such as plastic. Every time we recycle, the materials decline in strength and value until they eventually become landfill waste.   

Recycling paper, glass and metal is a complete or closed-loop cycle, while plastic is generally not. According to the EPA, only about 8.7% of the plastic waste generated in the U.S. was recycled in 2018, most of which was downcycled.

Recycling, downcycling, and upcycling are all practices that aim to divert waste from landfills. This article will discuss each approach and determine which is most sustainable.


What is Downcycling Versus Upcycling?

Downcycling, also known as cascading or open-loop recycling, refers to the practice of recycling waste, which results in a material of lesser quality than the original product. Unlike more sustainable recycling processes, downcycled products decrease in value and cannot be used for the same purpose. Examples of downcycling are turning plastic bottles into fleece or carpet fiber or downcycling paper into paper towels, tissue paper, or egg cartons.  

Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, refers to reusing or recycling an object in a way that appreciates its original value. Using a plastic bottle as a planter, an old tire as furniture, or repurposing jars for candles are all examples of upcycling.  

Unlike traditional recycling, which breaks everything down to its baser components, upcycling involves using waste materials as they are. Upcycling is a more creative venture and reimagines how materials can be used.  

Which Approach is Better for The Environment?

Within the realm of waste management and recycling, downcycling and upcycling are two distinct approaches that differ from recycling, but like recycling, they aim to divert waste from landfills and reduce emissions. We should also consider recycling from two perspectives: open-loop and closed-loop. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, and this section explores the environmental impacts of each.  

Upcycling offers many advantages over recycling and downcycling. Upcycling creates products of higher value than the originals, resulting in a whole new market for high-quality upcycled products. It also minimizes the demand for virgin materials, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Upcycling supports local economies and creates new jobs by promoting small-scale manufacturing and artisanal production. Finally, upcycling helps people think creatively about waste materials. Where they used to see trash is now an opportunity for something better.   

The main advantage of downcycling is that it reuses materials. However, we must recognize the many drawbacks of downcycling. In most cases, it decreases the value of the material, making it less economically viable than traditional recycling approaches. This is especially true with plastics. It’s important to note that downcycling still requires a lot of energy, and the outcome may not be worth the resource expenditure. Additionally, the issue of “circularity” remains. Downcycling cannot be considered a circular process since it leads to a gradual loss of materials. Even when done effectively, downcycling is only temporary, and the material will eventually become waste.  

Despite all these limitations, downcycling still plays a role in reducing waste and promoting sustainability. By keeping waste materials out of landfills or incinerators, downcycling can help reduce the negative impacts of waste disposal on the environment and public health. However, we cannot consider downcycling as a replacement for more sustainable strategies like closed-loop recycling or upcycling. Instead, it should be viewed as a small piece of a larger puzzle in promoting sustainable waste management practices. 

True closed-loop recycling, which results in materials of similar value as the original, is also a highly effective waste management approach. Like upcycling, this strategy conserves virgin resources, and when it comes to a product’s end of life, many materials, including glass and aluminum, can be effectively recycled and reused using this methodology.

Shifting the Paradigm: Embracing Upcycling for a Sustainable Future

We must explore waste management and resource conservation strategies in our search for a healthier future planet. Recycling, downcycling, and upcycling all reduce waste and contribute to sustainability. However, downcycling should only be used to complement more sustainable recycling strategies. Upcycling, overall, is better than downcycling and recycling at reducing waste and contributing to a circular economy.   

The reality is that most of the products we use end up in a landfill, and there’s no guarantee that everything that goes to a recycling facility will be recycled or transformed. Upcycling helps reduce waste, conserve resources, foster creativity, stimulate local economies, and promote a more sustainable lifestyle. More knowledge about and investment in closed-loop recycling and upcycling can create a world where waste is minimized, resources are conserved, and sustainable practices are celebrated.