Recycling or Upcycling? Mostly, It’s Word Games

I came across an interesting article the other day that mentioned a word I’d never seen: upcycling. But how do you know if you’re recycling or upcycling?

Unfortunately, I lost the link to the original story that prompted this post. Fortunately, it’s not specifically necessary to discuss the matter at hand.

The story was about turning articles of clothing into a comfy cat bed. I’m not a cat person, but what caught my eye wasn’t the content looking cat lying in a nest made of old sweaters and sweatshirts but the term the process was labeled: upcycling.

It’s a form of repurposing, I suppose, but then so is recycling for that matter.

I’ve consulted a couple of sources and have come up with this general distinction between the two:

  • Recycling is regarded as taking an original material and breaking it down to make a new item that might be of lesser quality.
  • Upcycling is taking an original material and changing it to give it a new function and making the original as good or better than it had been.

If it strikes you that “better” is a highly-subjective term in this case, you’re not alone.

Taking aluminum cans, for example, and melting them down to create a new batch of aluminum cans is considered recycling, despite the fact that the new cans should be presumed to be at least as good as the original, perhaps depending on what eventually is placed in them.

Hipcycle gives this example of upcycling: “Stretching out a wire clothes hanger then tying strips of a plastic bag around it to make a wreath.”

That’s better than a clothes hanger? Sorry, I don’t see that one…any more than I see taking used sweaters and turning them into bedding for a cat is making the sweaters better than they were. (It may make a difference, of course, exactly how ugly the sweater was to begin with.)

Another distinction, from what I gather from scanning a few sites on the subject, is that recycling is regarded as simply “prolonging” the life of a product that will eventually end up in a landfill, while upcycling is regarded as putting the product straight back into the supply chain.

Recycling aluminum cans keeps the cans out of the landfill by returning them to the supply chain, which makes me think aluminum can recycling should, by this logic, be called “upcycling.” Meanwhile, that cat bed isn’t returning the product to the supply chain, it’s just prolonging the inevitable: what are you going to do with a scratched up sweater after it has had a second life as a pet bed?

While I always respect efforts to recycle and save the planet’s resources, I think this “upcycling” is taking semantics a bit too far. We should be happy with any work done to prolong filling a landfill, no matter how long that delay is.

I wish we could focus more energy on that than on what name is used.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.