Recycling vs Upcycling: What's the Difference?

Reduce, Reuse, ...Upcycle?

So, we’re all well acquainted with the process of recycling by now. 

Our eco-friendly efforts see us opting for items packaged and made with recycled materials, and we consciously sort our household trash to sift out the waste that can be recycled, in order to minimize our contributions to landfill. 

We lug our blue recycling bins out to the curb every week and send off our household glass, cans, paper and plastic to be given a second life at the recycling facility.

(...By the way, if you’re still wondering what exactly can go in your recycling bins, get the scoop here!)

By its barebone definition, Recycling is simply converting waste into usable material.

Where “Recycling” is generally reverting an object to a more primitive form; “Upcycling”- also known as creative reuse- aims to transform objects into products of higher quality. 


What is Upcycling Exactly?

Prevalent among the DIY, Arts, and Fashion communities, you might have heard the term "Upcycled" being mentioned in your local thrift store, or online via blogs and stores specializing in handmade and vintage items.

Upcycled creations have an inherently environmental focus, embodying the idea of repurposing discarded elements to create something new, beautiful and desirable out of them, therefore giving them a second lease on life. 

Popular small business-centric e-commerce store Etsy is abound with reimagined pieces like wine bottle chandeliers and ladder bookshelves.

 The rise of an avant-garde art movement, Dadaism, uses discarded everyday items, blurring the lines between what we perceive as “trash” and “art”.

Upcycling has even made its way into high fashion, with a growing roster of niche fashion brands known for their finger-on-the-pulse ethos also adopting the sustainable trend. 

Reclaimed vintage fabrics are finding new leases on life, and being repurposed for another season’s rotation en vogue

What Sparked the Upcycling Movement?

Despite the widespread appeal of the #preloved movement we see today, upcycling is a fairly new phenomenon.

The term “Upcycling” was coined in 1994 by a German mechanical engineer-turned-interior builder, named Reiner Pilz.

In his contract work, Pilz found himself stockpiling old parts to be repurposed, and even scoured through trash himself to give useful materials a second lease on life. Reworking architectural antiques and reclaimed wood into his designs became his signature, all the while saving him and his clients money.

During an interview in which he was speaking about European waste disposal systems, Pilz stated:

 “Recycling? I call it down-cycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less...” 


Upcycling’s Evolution into the Mainstream 

Upcycling was not widely known until 2002, however, when US architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart introduced the concept to English-speaking audiences with their book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things". 

The book itself is a prime example of upcycling, as the pages are not paper, but synthetics created from plastic resins and inorganic fillers- how’s that for meta?!

The emerging interior design trends of reclaimed wood shiplap walls, antiques imagined into eye-popping art pieces with colorful upholstery and shockingly vibrant paint makeovers, and industrial elements that are retooled into furniture, all rapidly made their way into our homes and hearts.


try your hand at Your Own Upcycling “Crafternoon”

If that all sounds rather complicated... Rest assured, you don’t have to be a chemist or an architect to employ the idea of upcycling!

Here are some simple life hacks you can do at home with common household objects:

1.  Bottle Caps  Tea Lights

Grab some candle wicks and wax from your local craft store or online, then heat it up and pour it into your bottle caps. You can even use the dregs of wax from old candles for double points!

2.  Newspapers   Gift Wrap

This one’s self-explanatory, and we know every house has extra tribunes laying around just waiting to be put to good use! Get creative incorporating old maps or even spray paint to add a burst of color to the paper, and save any pretty strings or ribbons you come across to tie up your gifts with a bow.

3.  Sweaters   Throw Pillows 

Few too many holes in that cable-knit? Refashion it into a pillow! With some stitching skills and fluffy filler, level up your sofa’s coziness by transforming your old sweaters into pillows. 

There are infinite ways you can try your hand at upcycling. You’ll be saving yourself money and keeping objects with plenty of life left in them still out of the landfills... Not to mention, having fun while you’re at it.

Waste not, want not!

Maggie J.
Greens Steel Wellness Contributor
Philadelphia, USA