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Upcycling vs. Recycling vs. Downcycling: The Conscious Consumers Guide

Upcycling, recycling, and downcycling are all related but aren’t considered equal to each other. What makes these processes different, and which one should you choose for your materials to help the environment? Our guide will help you sort through the rubble so you can better understand upcycling vs. recycling vs. downcycling and how to use them to become a more conscious consumer. 

What is Upcycling? 

Upcycling takes unwanted materials that would otherwise be wasted and repurposes them into something better. What can be upcycled? The sky’s the limit! Some common upcycling examples include upcycling discarded wood into furniture, coffee grounds into facial scrubs, or glass bottles into flower vases. 

There are even several sustainable food brands that upcycle fruits and vegetables and turn them into delicious foods. For example, Pulp Pantry helps eliminate food waste by taking unused vegetable pulp from local juice makers that they would normally throw away and upcycles it as a primary ingredient of their snack chips.

Reducing consumption is one of the easiest ways to reduce waste. Be mindful of how much food you're buying that could result in waste. Shop smart and buy from sustainable brands that use upcycled ingredients in their products.

Don’t forget to reuse, repurpose, or upcycle household items or packaging. Don’t be afraid to get creative and use your imagination!

What is Recycling? 

Recycling is the process of converting a material or resource into a new item of equal value. But what’s the difference between reuse and recycle? Simply put, a recycled material becomes something new whereas an item being reused doesn’t change form.

Recycling consists of three types of products:  

  • Recycled content: Products made with recycled materials, either from manufacturing waste or consumer waste.
  • Post-consumer content: Products made from recycled materials collected after consumers have used them. 
  • Recyclable product: Products that you can recycle after you use them so that they can become post-consumer content!

When shopping, be mindful of the products you buy. Some items come packaged in plastics that aren’t recyclable and end up in landfills. Look for products that you can recycle or products that contain recycled content, like Who Gives A Crap. Their recycled toilet paper and tissues are made from 100% recycled fibers which help reduce deforestation.

You’ve seen the recycling symbol made up of three arrows that form a loop. Sometimes, the symbol includes a number that identifies the type of plastic the item is made of, called Resin Identification Codes or RICs. The numbers are listed from one through seven, with one being the easiest material to recycle and seven being the most difficult.


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Here are a few of the most common items that you can recycle:

  • Paper
  • Aluminum cans
  • Steel or tin cans
  • Glass bottles and jars
  • Cardboard

Participating in recycling is easier than you think. Many residential areas include curbside recycling, where a local collection facility will pick up your recyclables from your home. If that option isn’t available to you, most communities have drop-off locations where you can deliver your recyclables.

What is Downcycling?

Downcycling takes a material and converts it into something of lesser value or quality, often called downstream recycling. In fact, most recycling is actually downcycling, as many plastics lose their durability during the recycling process, resulting in a cheaper new product.

Examples of downcycling include turning glass jars into fiberglass insulation, white writing paper into cardboard, or plastic bottles into carpet fibers. Downcycling is often the last resort for reusing a material and isn’t a preferred method of recycling a material.

The Benefits of Upcycling, Recycling, and Downcycling

Though recycling vs. upcycling vs. downcycling are different, they exist in the same family and share many of the same benefits. These include:

  • Reducing food waste
  • Conserving the environment and wildlife habitats
  • Conserving natural resources like water, fuel, and forestry
  • Reducing air and water pollution
  • Saving energy
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Creating jobs

Upcycled items tell a story — their original purpose, what they are now, and their new purpose. Upcycling is creative while recycling and downcycling are more practical, yet they all chip in and do something special for the planet.

How To Become a Conscious Consumer Through Upcycling, Recycling, and Downcycling

upcycling vs recycling vs downcycling tips brown paper bag

1. Try Brands That Make Upcycled Goods

Taking the “waste not, want not” approach to the products you buy can help you lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Finding brands that create their products using upcycled ingredients can benefit the environment now and for future generations. Hive has a section dedicated to upcycled goods to make your sustainable shopping trip easier.

2. Buy Products With Recyclable/Recycled Packaging

Be mindful of the packaging of your products. Look for packaging made from recycled materials, packaging that you can easily recycle — or even better, no packaging at all. Some sustainable products like the Cora Ball are made from 100% recycled plastic and can be recycled again after you use it.

3. Reuse/Repurpose Items and Packaging

When trying to decide if you should upcycle vs. recycle, first think about if you can repurpose the item yourself. Glass jars and coffee cans are perfect for storage while you can use plastic gallon jugs to store natural cleaners. You can repurpose single-use plastic bottles in many creative (and sustainable) ways, like turning them into planters, miniature watering cans, art, or musical instruments.  

4. Refuse Harmful Items

Pass on items that you know are harmful to the environment, like plastic straws, styrofoam takeout containers, or plastic shopping bags. Bring your own containers with you when you eat out and reusable shopping bags when you go shopping. Refuse things like plastic straws and cutlery, and disposable coffee cups and lids. Resisting the convenience and refusing these items can do a lot of good for the planet.

5. Recycle!

Make an effort to participate in local programs that offer recycling services. Make sure to recycle properly by rinsing or cleaning your recyclable materials from food and debris and breaking down and flattening your cardboard boxes. Read the label to understand if the material is curbside recyclable or if you need to take it to a drop-off location for proper recycling. 

Keeping the Loop Closed

sustainable products on a table including soap dental floss olive oil bamboo toothbrush plant based paper towels

Though some forms of recycling are more valuable than others, upcycling, recycling, and downcycling each extend the life of materials and benefit the environment in numerous ways. Understanding the differences and benefits of upcycling vs. recycling vs. downcycling can help you keep the loop closed. Shop the aisles of our sustainable grocery store to help make your choices easier with Hive’s sustainable solutions

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