To explain the difference between recycling and upcycling, let us take an old book for an example. Saying, we no longer need a book, yet are not willing to simply throw it away, what options do we have? Firstly, we could give it for recycling, where our book will usually be mixed with other old paper and water and chemicals, to be chopped, heated and screened, until any other additional materials, such as glue or plastic, are removed and the final cellulose product stripped out of ink and bleached, until recycled paper is produced. Through lengthy processes, which require energy and resources, our book of high quality paper will be downcycled to recycled paper of lower quality. We did something good, we minimised waste and saved natural resources (virgin wood), but the production of the recycled paper still produced some waste, consumed energy and emitted greenhouse gas, to at the end leave us with a product of lower quality compared to the initial one.
What is our second option? We could call out our creativity and turn our old book into a shelf or a box for jewellery, and by transforming the unwanted book into a new item, give it additional value and usage. Upcycling, as opposed to recycling, does not destroy a product in order to turn it into a raw material to be reused, but simply re-purposes an old product into a new one, and thus has a higher environmental and consumer-end value.
And while both recycling and upcycling have always been around, it is the history of their industrial implementation, worth to discuss, with the oldest known recycling centre in the United States, making paper from recycled cotton and linen rags, the Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia operating as far back as 1690, through the Government’s Waste Reclamation Service, with the motto Don’t Waste Waste – Save It, to answer the massive shortages of raw materials during World War I, to the current global call for environmental substainability, and upcycling moving from an art and design movement to a real industry.
The first recorded statement of industrial importance to call for upcycling and make the difference between recycling and upcycling comes from 1994, from an interview of Reiner Pilz, of Pilz GmbH, discussing the implementation of the EU Demolition Waste Streams directive: “Recycling, I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.”
The industrial concept of upcycling was brought to the collective mindset in 2002 when the German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough published their Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, presenting a Cradle to Cradle approach aiming for the design of products and industries without damaging effects on the environment, discouraging downcycling and recycling for its fair consumption of raw materials, energy usage, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but rather encouraging the manufacture of products with the goal of upcycling in mind.
In 2013, the authors went steps ahead, releasing The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance, further advocating for entirely eliminating the concept of waste through better design and use of technologies and asking that industry shifts its focus from recycling, to rather creating products that could be used, and reused by remodelling, again and again by future generations.
Today, the interior and fashion industries are the main ones to embrace upcycling, though to a little extend having environment and sustainability in mind, but mainly driven to answer the needs of the urban hipster generation market. And as we await to see the collective future of the upcycling industry, why not start small – reach for that unwanted book and don’t stop there, build a piece of furniture from old pallets, turn a ladder into a bookshelf, replace glassware with mason jars, turn old jeans into a trendy bag or a cushion, and keep on upcycling.