[NEW - ENVIRONNEMENT & SOCIÉTÉ] What are upcycling and recycling and how are they different from one another?

By Ella Brown

Reading time: 5 minutes

While often used interchangeably, the terms “recycling vs upcycling” are actually very different processes that are completely unrelated, but are both very important from an environmental perspective. 

Recycling

We often think of recycling as setting a bin of used glass, plastic, and aluminum cans and bottles on the side of the road to be picked up and taken to a recycling plant, to later be broken down and reused. 

While this is true, it’s still important to understand how recycling works and why recycling is so important for the environment.

Recycling is when used materials (such as liquid, glass, plastic, or aluminum waste) are processed to regain usable materials. In other words, recycling is an industrial process that breaks down the old, used materials to create new, useable materials. 

Example of textile recycling

Say you have an old pair of jeans that are too small and too worn to be donated, so, you decide to recycle them.

When a piece of clothing is recycled, it is sent to a textile recycling center. At the textile recycling center, the pair of jeans, along with many other used jean materials, will be sorted and cleaned. The buttons and zippers will also be removed and separated.

Next, the pair of jeans will be industrially processed, which will essentially bring the pair of jeans back to its original raw fibers. Examples of raw fibers are cotton, flax, wool, and silk.

Once the pair of jeans is at its raw fiber, it will be washed, spun, and re-dyed to be used as new material. The new material is esentially the same as the old material, but recycled to be used as new again for the next comany to use.

It is increasingly popular for clothing companies to buy these new, recycled materials for their own clothing designs.

The same, or a very similar recycling process, is possible with glass, metals, plastic, and paper. 

Upcycling

Upcycling – sometimes also known as creative upcycling – is a way in which you can recycle on your own without using an industrial process at all. All you need is a pre-loved material and a bit of a creative touch. 

Upcycling means to creatively recycle a product that is destined to be destroyed in a way that the resulting product is of higher value than its original state, without bringing the product back to its core fibers. 

So, to upcycle basically means finding a useful way to use a material or product that would otherwise be wasted and sent to the landfill.

Example of textile upcycling

Say you decided to upcycle that pair of jeans instead of recycling them or sending them to the landfill. 

There are many ways you could upcycle your jeans, but you decide to make a jean purse. To turn your jeans into a purse, you could start by carefully riping out the seams along the legs and remove the buttons and zippers. Now, you have a new fabric and an clean slate. You could use a pattern to sew the purse you've been wanting and add the zippers and buttons for fun!

You could also upcycle your old jeans by making them into shorts. You could just cut the legs to the length you want and then hem the bottom to prevent fraying. And, you could even use the extra fabric that you cut off to save and keep for later, or reupholster that chair that your cat has destroyed ;)

The opportunities are endless, really when it comes to upcycling.

Why are upcycling and recycling so important?

Upcycling and recycling are increasingly important to our environment because it helps us re-use the materials that we already have, keeps materials out of landfills, and minimizes the use of natural resources. 

Our society has gotten too comfortable with the concept of buying new things just as quickly as we throw them away. According to Roadrunner: Smarter Recycling, in 2020, the rate that people throw away clothing in America has doubled in the last 20 years with a recorded rate jumping from 7 million to 14 million tons of textile waste.

Textiles are especially bad for the environment because once fabric reaches landfills, it can take 200+ years to decompose. The decomposition process of the fabric also releases dangerous methane gasses, chemicals, and unnatural dyes into the environment, contaminating groundwater, soil, and the air.

*@Zoé make a visual that looks like this*

How to take action

But where do we start? Here are a few simple ways to make decisions about where you buy your clothes and what to do with them when you are done.

  • Donate! If you have clothes that are still in good condition but no longer suit your fancy, donate them to shelters and other second-hand stores in your area. Some will even come to pick up your clothes at your door!
  • Host a clothing exchange! A clothing exchange can be a fun (and free) way to get together with your friends and get a new wardrobe at the same time!
  • Upcycle! Need new clothes to paint in? Need new rags? Something a sewing machine can fix? Find creative and fun ways to re-use the materials in your drawers.
  • Invest! Buy clothes that you need AND love, not only what you love. Invest in clothing that is resistant, timeless, and won't last just a season or two
  • Shop responsibly! Buy from brands with trusty environmental action plans 
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