What is the difference between Upcycling and Recycling?

What is the difference between Upcycling and Recycling?

Sustainability – the buzzword of the COVID pandemic era, is overused by the food, travel and fashion industries. However it's also arguably the most important thing in our lives.

Along with sustainability, we often come across the words “upcycling” and “recycling”. Often confusing us, not knowing how the two terms are different,  we might have used the word interchangeably. 

To navigate this confusion, let’s dive in and highlight the differences between the two, while also understanding why each is important from an environmental perspective.

What is Recycling?

Recycling is the act of turning products back into their raw materials that can be used to create new products, whereas upcycling creatively repurposes old materials while maintaining some of their original characteristics.

When upcycling, the original form is retained and the object is recognisable, which gives it a story — you can see what it has been and also what it has become. We as a brand, upcycle pre-loved saris into contemporary apparel and accessories. In this sense, the upcycled object is a kind of tribute to the object it used to be and can be identified as a sari.

Recycling is an industrial process whereby objects are transformed into new materials and then used to make either the same product again or another product. Recyclables are collected — either from homes, commercial properties, industrial properties, or council-run recycling centers — and taken to a recycling plant. Here, the recyclables are sorted into types and then broken down and used to create new materials. Some recyclables are 100 percent recyclable (like aluminium and glass) and some recyclables can be recycled but not completely because they become weaker through the recycling process (like fabric, plastic, and paper). In this case, recycled materials are mixed with fresh materials in order to create new products.

What is upcycling?

A simple example to explain the difference between upcycling and recycling would come in the form of old t-shirts. You may have stained your t-shirt during a hearty meal, and realised that the stain is permanent.  

You may then either throw it in the bin or discard responsibly and drop it off at your nearest fabric recycling center. But, if you wanted to upcycle the t-shirt you could use it as a washcloth or take up a DIY project and transform it into a plant hanger or braided rug or a million other useful items. This gives it a new lease of life and a new handy product for you to use.

Unlike upcycling, breaking down materials in a recycling system is emissions-intensive and reinforces the unfortunate societal norm that says an item can be disposable after one use. This is where upcycling becomes a much more appealing and sustainable option.

“Well, if I recycle, why do I need to upcycle?” Not only does the process of upcycling keep tons of waste from entering our landfills, lakes, and waterways (where they’ll sit for centuries!), it reduces the amount of CO2 entering our atmosphere by making use of old materials instead of extracting resources to create new ones. For every ton of tossed textiles that get upcycled, 20 tons of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere! Also known as creative repurposing, upcycling is about more than just enjoying a fun DIY–it uses less water, energy, and raw materials to create something new than traditional production.















In the Fashion Industry

In the fashion industry, fabrics and textiles have not traditionally been the easiest items to recycle, and there remains a lot of confusion around how to recycle clothing. With this issue under the spotlight and upcycling being preferential to recycling, many recycling solutions are emerging to divert clothing from landfills, which look to make recycled fabric garments. These are great steps towards shifting the system from a linear, process-driven approach to a circular one.

The fashion industry is becoming open to the idea of utilizing upcycled materials. Upcycling, rather than relying on virgin materials, is still a great way to reduce carbon footprint. For instance, if we (I was a Sari) used virgin fabric, our carbon footprint would be off the charts. Instead, our pre-loved saris come from local markets, which benefits the environment as well as the local communities.

However, upcycling comes with its own limitations and struggles. An upcycled product requires attention to each piece. When we work with saris – they come with defects, their flaw-fullness gives them a unique identity. And we have to work around these defects to make a unique piece. Which means each single piece has to be cut individually, unlike the mass manufacturing process of thousands of layers cut together. Upcycling is in true sense, slow fashion, where we cannot increase capacities to the likes of fashion giants ever, so neither can we have 500 new styles each day, nor can we increase our volumes per product. Making upcycling much more labor intensive and each product one-of-a-kind.

Why they are both great options

Instead of supporting the throwaway culture, upcycling and recycling both encourage us as consumers to purchase less and of higher quality. It’s one of the best combined ways to be more sustainable with all commodities. This understanding of the distinction between these two commonly used terms—upcycling and recycling—is a crucial step to a more sustainable life that  addresses our impact on the planet. 

Do you buy upcycled products or upcycle items, yourself at home? We would love to learn about your experiences with upcycling and recycling. Tell us in the comments below.

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