Friday, July 20, 2012

What Does Upcycled Mean? Recycling & Upcycling Explained

Recycling, Repurposing, Upcycling – what’s the difference? 

…and what exactly is Upcycling?

We all know what recycling is. A plastic bag is used to carry home groceries, then is later reused by the owner who uses the bag a second or third time, perhaps to again carry groceries or to store items. The bag has been reused, and in a way, it has been recycled by its owner. The value of the bag remains the same.

Let's now say that the same plastic bag is sent out for recycling to a recycling plant. It's taken to a factory where it is put with lots of other plastic bags which are then turned into something new, such as more new plastic bags. The bag is being recycled, but most of the time, it is also being downcycled... 

Downcycling is something that occurs when items that are recycled are converted into items of lesser quality due to the recycling process itself. For example, different types of plastic bottles may be recycled and during the recycling process, some of the valuable materials from these plastics may be extracted by the recycling process itself. In the end, what may be left is a hybrid type of plastic of a lesser quality than the quality of plastic of the original bottle before it was recycled. After the recycling process, the quality of the plastic has gone down. One example is that an old plastic bag that is recycled into a new plastic bag may not be as durable as the original bag was. This is downcycling

With upcycling, an item is no longer being used for its intended purpose, but is repurposed – given a new purpose – and along with this new purpose (and this is the important part) it is also given an increase in value (usually both aesthetically and monetarily.) 
It is worth more in its new form.

Upcycled items often have both a better quality and a higher environmental value than they had in their original state! 

What else makes upcycled items so desirable?
They are created with innovation and creativity!

Here's an example:

My daughters found this piece of a broken plate on a nature walk...

I turned the broken plate piece into three beautiful necklaces for them!

One of the best quotes explaining upcycling comes from Wisegeek:

"Upcycling is designed to work in opposition to consumer culture, encouraging people to think of new and innovative ways to use things, instead of simply buying new consumer goods. It also benefits the environment, by promoting reuse over discarding whenever possible."

At a glance:

Recycled – in it's broadest sense - used again and value remains unchanged

Downcycled – items are turned into new items of a lesser quality than their original state

Repurposed – used again but with a new purpose

Upcycled – used again, with a new purpose, and with greater value than its original state

Pin this post!

What do you think?

Have you ever upcycled something?

I hope you have a great week 
Love, Laura

My broken china jewelry is always available for purchase at


  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I am secretly annoyed when people use those terms incorrectly :)

    Love the jewelry you made from broken china!

  2. I write a lot about upcycled items and many people ask me exactly what that means, so I figured this would be a relevant blog post!

  3. Awesome! Thanks for this post, it's super helpful. It's crazy to me how many people don't really know what up-cycling is. Thanks again, and btw I found ur site on pinterest via Dishfunctional Designs...keep those great posts comin!

  4. Great word/concept. This was done back in The Sixties. I rember old silverware being turned into jewelry

  5. Thanks a Lot! You made it so easy to understand :)

  6. Thank you for this definition! I am redoing a desk that was given to me by this old money guy in Dallas. Since I' refurbishing it I wanted to know if it was being upcycled or repurposed. Thank you!

  7. Thanks for the simple to understand explanation. I've TRIED to explain it myself, but never managed to write anything on the topic that is nearly as simple, understandable or eloquent. I'm totally going to send people to this post when they ask for an explanation in the future.

    - Pearl

  8. Laura Beth, may I have your permission to repost this very informative post on my blog at I love the way you've explained everything. Thanks, Chris

    1. Yes as long as you credit me and link back to my page.