Thinking outside the (recycling) box.

Photo by cafemama |

Have you ever been taught something in school, only to get re-taught it years later because what they told you when you were younger was just a simplified version? From my experiences it happens a lot with science or math courses because some concepts require too much abstract thinking or skills to understand at younger ages.

For example if you’ve ever been taught about light, you may have been told that it was a particle. Then years later you get told it can be considered a wave as it has both wave and particle properties. Well, I just recently had that experience with recycling. Yes, recycling. Apparently there is actually two parts to it: downcycling and upcycling. Wait what?

Downcycling is what most people are familiar with when they think of recycling. This is the process of converting waste products into new products that are of less quality or function than the original.

An easy example is the process of recycling office paper products into toilet paper (the paper goes down in quality to produce a new product). An example of where the product goes down in function is if you use your old computer tower as a night stand to put your alarm clock on (the computer tower was converted into a product of less function than what it was created for).

Some people will commonly confuse this part of downcycling and think the last example is actually reusing when it is not. In terms of the three R system, reusing refers to literally using a product over again for the same purpose such as reusable shopping bags or food containers.

Upcycling on the other hand is taking a waste product and creating a new product of equal or greater quality and function. Some people believe that the term was first used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

However, the term has earlier origins in Germany where it was used by Reiner Pilz in an interview for Salvo Magazine in 1999. Upcycling is an extremely important part of recycling because of the potential it has for sustainability. Many companies can create profitable business models by converting waste into new products for different applications in society.

Upcycling is now the new green trend, but it has been picking up steam for a while. After the term was coined, green enthusiasts began researching the process and realized that people have been upcycling around the world for decades. Many people in developing countries have been converting waste products into functional items for quite some time. 

Only now do we have other countries looking into it for environmental purposes. When you think about it you’ve probably been upcycling for years; you just didn’t know the term existed. Ever take some cardboard boxes as a kid and make a fort out of them?

In the end upcycling is just a classic example of taking a step outside the box to come up with green solutions. Hopefully this relatively simple concept will only continue in becoming more mainstream in the green movement’s constant attempt to practice the three Rs. And on a final note, if you’re interested in upcycled products, check out some of these cool examples below...


Wetsuit waste materials turned into laptop sleeves:

Flip flop waste materials turned into door mats:

Waste suits and ties turned into wallets:

Rice bags turned into messenger bags: