reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.“the opportunity to upcycle trash, or turn it into new products, was vast”
Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling, which is the other half of the recycling process. Downcycling involves converting materials and products into new materials of lesser quality. Most recycling involves converting or extracting useful materials from a product and creating a different product or material.
The upcycling concept was the title of the German book written by Gunter Pauli in 1998, the free translation of upsizing (the opposite of downsizing) book first published in 1998. The German edition was adapted to the German language and culture by Johannes F. Hartkemeyer, then Director of the Volkshochschule in Osnabruck. The concept was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a significant step towards regenerative design culture where the end products are cleaner, healthier, and usually have a better value than the material inputs.
For example, during the recycling process of plastics other than those used to create bottles, many different types of plastics are mixed, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid is used in the manufacturing of plastic lumber applications. However, unlike the engineered polymer ABS which hold properties of several plastics well, recycled plastics suffer phase-separation that causes structural weakness in the final product.
In 2009, Belinda Smith from Reuters wrote that upcycling had increased in the rich countries but observed that upcycling was a necessity in poorer ones:
Supporters of the environmentally friendly practice of upcycling say people in developing countries have effectively been upcycling for years, using old packaging and clothing in new ways, although more out of need than for the environment. But upcycling is now taking off in other countries, reflecting an increased interest in eco-friendly products, particularly ones that are priced at an affordable level and proving profitable for the manufacturers. “If upcycling is going to become mainstream, then the corporate world needs to see that it can be profitable,” said Albe Zakes, spokesman of U.S. company TerraCycle which specializes in finding new uses for discarded packaging. A growing number of companies are focusing on upcycling although the trend is still in its infancy with industry-wide figures yet to be produced.
Upcycling has shown significant growth across the United States. For example, the number of products on Etsy or Pinterest tagged with the word “upcycled” increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later—an increase of 275%. As of April 2013, that number stood at 263,685, an additional increase of 879%.
Upcycling, a sustainable trend