Date Published: 9 July 2011

Recycling and Upcycling

Recycle, Re-Use or Upcycle ? Recycling and Upcycling Discussed

Recycling and Upcycling are trendy topics at the moment.

Let's reflect on what the terms recycling and upcycling really mean, what is upcycling?, and what is the difference between recycling and upcycling?

Recycling seems obvious - it's about re-using materials (or ideas, etc.) in a new way, right ?

It seems that more people in the UK are now recycling in some way or other than ever before. However, there are still rumours and stories circulating about waste that has been separated by households then (allegedly) being thrown into the same larger containers and disposed of altogether anyway - some say to landfill. Details, if any, vary from place to place but it seems likely that this has at least happened in the past even if it is not still happening in some areas in July 2011.

On the other hand, some successful recycling schemes have been running for many years and are not only genuine but also extremely effective e.g. some arrangements for recycling clean paper into other paper products, or for recycling drinks cans. There have certainly been many technical, logistical, political and economic challenges involved in developing efficient ways to recycle various types of used products and/or packaging so that the materials within them can eventually be put to another good use instead of being buried in the ground (or at sea) forever - where they may, or may not, decay anytime soon depending on the type of materials present. Of course it can be argued that with sufficient expenditure of time, effort, expertise, money, energy and goodwill most such problems can be solved and so ways found to recycle most items as cost- and energy-efficiently as possible. It is also reasonable to expect that some materials will be more easily and effectively recycled than others.

That is all very well but while many people are making "politically correct" easy-to-say statements about recycling, the whole subject can become increasingly bland, less interesting, and less innovative.

If recycling in general and at least some specific recycling schemes are imperfect, what about better options ?

  • Manufacturers and retailers using less packaging in the first place.
    An important packaging issue is that of superfluous "presentation" packaging e.g. packs of 4 apples in styrofoam trays with hard clear plastic covers rather than in a simple paper bag ... perhaps later placed inside a disposable plastic one used to carry several such items home, obviously.
    This is not to suggest that retailers shouldn't continue to offer free plastic carrier bags for customer convenience and to promote the shop's brand(s). These are often necessary, appreciated, and re-used by shoppers - either at home or when shopping another time.
  • Don't buy more goods than necessary.
    Obtaining anything in excessive quantities usually results in waste and some items being discarded. This is of particular concern in the case of goods with a short shelf-life such as foodstuffs.
  • Buy things that will last longer.
    By spending a bit more money to buy items that will last longer shoppers don't only save themselves money in the longer-term but they also reduce the overall amount of waste that must be disposed of.
  • Re-use instead of recycle.
    There are inevitably costs involved in the transport, energy and labour etc. required by recycling processes that change the form of used materials, such as converting clean used paper into another paper product such as notebooks or toilet rolls. There are lower or no such costs involved in simply re-using the same item for the same or a similar purpose time and time again. Milk bottles used for door-step deliveries of milk are one such example. Another example is re-using jam jars to fill with homemade jam time and again.
  • Upcycle
    Ah, as in the title of this article ... it was bound to come up again (continues below) ...

Then along came upcycling ...
"What ?" Yes, that's what you thought, isn't it ? ... Yet another buzzword ?

What is the difference between recycling and upcycling ?

  • Recycling means applying one or more process(es) to change the physical and/or chemical form of certain, usually pre-sorted, objects or types of materials so that the matter comprising them is recovered for use to produce other useful objects or is converted directly into other useful objects that can then be distributed for use. Therefore the materials from which the original items were made are used again in a new form instead of being permanently discarded.
  • Upcycling means applying one or more process(es) to improve an object so that either a significant proportion of the original object remains intact but is made suitable for a new use or purpose or at least a significant proportion of the original object is considerably improved for re-use for the same or a similar purpose as before - though perhaps in a new and generally more impressive or upmarket setting.

... at least, that's one interpretation of recycling vs. upcycling. There are probably many others.

Thoughts that spring immediately to mind include restoration and renovation. That is perhaps a "grey area" because upcycling isn't just about making an old item such as an item of antique furniture as beautiful and functional as it was in the past (classic restoration), but rather improving it in a slightly different, creative, or innovative way. That could mean turning it into something else while still retaining much of the original structure, or it could mean increasing its appeal in some specific way, e.g. making it look better for use in a particular space.

So, would re-painting furniture and re-covering an item with new fabrics be furniture restoration, renovation or upcycling? Perhaps that depends on the individual piece, its style, and the tradition of the craftsman or artist.

Upcycling: Does anyone really do that ?

Absolutely. As well as the discussion and comparison with restoration and renovation, consider recent TV series such as "Grand Designs" and "Kirstie's Homemade Home". There's often lots of upcycling going on there.

There are also some fantastic up-and-coming artists specializing in exactly this field of reclamation and improvement of items that might otherwise be discarded - effectively creating real value from items close to, if not already on, a scrap-heap.

Catri Barrett of Ethical Eco Art (based in Oxfordshire) explained:

" I have always been interested in the impact we, as humans, have on the natural world and like to explore this through my artwork. The huge problem of landfill and consumerism lead me to develop my upcycling technique. I get immense pleasure from observing someone's appreciation of my upcycled furniture, when they would never have given the piece a second glance, yet alone houseroom, in its original state."

That sounds inspiring and more innovative that just putting another used thing into the recycling box. We particularly love the memory box cupboard and banana wood bowl.

[from "Recycling and Upcycling" to more holistic articles ...]
Source: IvyRose Holistic Article.

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