Recycle, Repurpose, Upcycle… What does it all mean?

Reuse Terms DefinedRecycle, Repurpose, Upcycle…  You may have seen these terms being thrown around, especially if you are a Pinterest addict like me.  But do you really know what they mean?  Well you will in just a few minutes!

Let’s start by looking at the old adage Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  These terms are generally self explanatory, but it doesn’t hurt to refresh.  Reduce, of course, means that you use less of something.  Reuse means that you use the same item over and over.  Recycle means you take an item and break it back down into raw material and then make it into a new product.  Take glass bottles for example.  Reducing would mean that you simply use fewer glass bottles.  Reusing means that you refill the same glass bottle over and over.   Recycling means the glass bottle is melted down and made into a new glass bottle (or some other glass object).

Now let’s think about the terms “Upcycle” and “Downcycle”.  As your intuition might be telling you, these are similar to recycling.  Again, when a material is recycled, it is broken back down into a raw material that can be used to make the same product again.  A glass bottle becomes a new glass bottle.  An aluminum can is melted down and made back into an aluminum can.  But with upcycling and downcycling, the end product is not the same as the original product.

Some materials cannot easily be broken back down and used as the same raw material again.  Plastic containers, for example, are often difficult to recycle back into clear plastic containers.  So in this case, the material is often downcycled, which is a form of recycling.  In downcycling, the material is turned into something else and cannot be turned back.  Our plastic containers may be turned into composite lumber, for example.  That deck material that looks like fake wood that you see at the hardware store is composite lumber.  It is also used for a very long lasting low maintenance fence material.  Composite lumber can never be turned back into clear plastic containers, so this is downcycling.  Another example is taking old tires and turning them into playground mulch.

Many times materials cannot be recycled or downcycled at all.  This is often because the original product is a combination of materials that are not easily separated into individual recyclable products.  Those cans that mixed nuts come in (like this) that are a cardboard tube with some foil, metal, and plastic trims on them are a good example of this.  Those materials – cardboard, foil, plastic – could normally be recycled.  But when they are all combined into a single container, it becomes far too labor intensive to separate the materials and recycle them.  In this case, upcycling is an option.  Upcycling takes a would-be trash item and turns it back into something useful.  So instead of going into the trash and ultimately the landfill, our cardboard/foil/metal/plastic nut mix can becomes a small drum for a toddler or a pencil holder or maybe it is even sliced into rings and made into some kind of funky bracelets.

Ok, let’s look at one more:  Repurpose.  Repurposing is often what is really happening in those fun projects you see on Pinterest.  Repurposing takes an item that is still useful (although it may not be desirable) and turns it into something else.  All of those creative pallet projects?  That is repurposing.  Those pallets could still be used as pallets.  When you take a few and turn them into a cool rustic bed frame, you’ve repurposed them.  Same thing goes for using an old door as a table or turning an old window into a picture frame.

One last thing.  Taking an old or ugly object and simply making it pretty falls into the none-of-the-above category.  I mention this because I have seen great projects – furniture redos, picture frame revamps, kitchen cabinet facelifts – that are dubbed ‘upcycle’ projects.  Technically, this is not upcycling.  Is it a wonderful thing to do?  Absolutely.  Taking your old items and making them beautiful again instead of trashing them and purchasing brand new “stuff” is a great thing to do.  But it is not recycling, upcycling, or repurposing.  A more appropriate term for this might be “rebeautifying”.

Now that you know what these terms mean, what upcycle, repurpose, or rebeautify projects have you been working on?  Share your links in the comments below!

For lots of great examples of reusing, repurposing, upcycling, and rebeautifying,
Follow Little Bits of Granola’s board New Life to Old Things on Pinterest.

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