Upcycling, Downcycling, and Recycling

Curiosity finally got the best of me so I decided to do some research to find out the differences between upcycling, downcycling and recycling. 

Upcycling is a term coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book titled “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The book was written in 2002, and what I found to be very interesting is the fact that the book is “printed  on a synthetic ‘paper,’ made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, designed to look and feel like top quality paper while also being waterproof and rugged. The book can be recycled at any location that is equipped with systems to collect polypropylene, like that in yogurt containers (Braungart & McDonough, 2002)”.  The authors define upcycling as the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.  Downcycling, on the other hand, is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. One might wonder why we would want to downcycle, but yes, it does have a purpose.  The main goal of downcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials, reducing the consumption of fresh raw materials, reducing energy usage, reducing water and air pollution and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.  To simplify the two,  upcycling improves the quality and value of the products or materials and downcycling reduces the quality and value. A couple of examples of downcycling are writing paper that is turned into cardboard, and plastics which are often downcycled into cheaper plastics.

This leads us to recycling, which almost everyone is familiar with. This is the process of taking unwanted materials and turning them into new products to prevent waste, and to protect our environment. Many items such as paper, plastic, metals, and glass are recycled. 

The note card holder in the photo above, that I recently made is what I would consider an upcycled item. I took 2 small boxes that I had received sample products in and painted them, decopodged them and turned them into the note holder. This improved the quality of the boxes and was turned into something that had a higher value.


Braungart, Michael & McDonough, William, (2002), Cradle to Cradle/Remaking the Way We Make Things,  North Point Press, 2002.