Beyond the Basics: Recycling, Downcycling, Upcycling and Precycling - Public Goods

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Beyond the Basics: Recycling, Downcycling, Upcycling and Precycling

All of us know about recycling. As kids we saw PSAs, or our parents and teachers showed us what to do with used-up paper.

hanging light bulbs, vases, flowers

Or perhaps no one told you, but it was only a matter of time before you saw those arrow/triangle symbols and figured out what they meant.

Recycling has become so standard that there is now a growing lexicon related to the practice and industry. These terms are valuable because they help consumers and businesses understand how to exist more sustainably and make the most of recyclable materials.

In addition to recycling, the three words we want to focus on are downcycling, upcycling and precycling. You might have heard them already and been wondering what they mean.


folded cardboard boxes

The EPA defines recycling as the practice of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash. Instead they are used to make new products.

For most people recycling means placing certain materials in the proper bins. Usually what happens after that step is downcycling.


one roll of toilet paper

Downcycling sounds kind of negative, doesn’t it? Fortunately it is actually an invaluable and essential aspect of recycling. This process uses recycled materials to manufacture new products, but the materials go down in quality — hence the name — compared to their state in the original product.

Have you bought toilet paper made from recycled materials? Chances are that relatively thin and brittle toilet paper was once sleek, thick paper that could be written on or used for printing. The paper may have degraded a bit, but it’s better than going in the trash, and it’s not like you need super thick paper to get the job done.

The vast majority of materials we recycle ultimately become part of the downcycling process. For consumers who want their waste to take on a different kind of second life, there is another option.


glass alcohol bottle turned into flower vase

With the right craftsmanship and creativity, many people and companies have transformed recycled materials into goods that can be considered higher quality than their source. This dynamic is upcycling in a nutshell. The process and ideology can vary a bit, though, depending on who makes the product, how it is made and whether it will be sold.

Upcycling is popular among environmentally-conscious consumers who love DIY projects. There are hundreds of examples online, including an old piano someone hollowed out and transformed into a bookshelf.

This case highlights the fact that upcycling is highly subjective, and people have not reached a consensus on certain details. Most bookshelves are not nearly as valuable as pianos, so is the modification actually increasing the quality of the product? Then again, maybe it doesn’t need to be something everyone would consider an improvement.

Some organizations don’t include an increase in value as part of the definition of upcycling. According to Hipcycle, a company that sells upcycled products, upcycling is “the process of converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often beautiful.” The tarnished piano turned bookshelf is certainly useful and beautiful, so it’s up to Hipcycle’s standards. This philosophy is more in line with the DIY spirit of upcycling.

On the commercial side, there’s no question that upcycled products can be more valuable than the original. Hipcycle illustrates how recycled materials and waste can be used to produce premium goods, ones that can be sold for a greater profit than the original items. One of their latest products is a soap dish crafted from discarded chopsticks, and one of their bestsellers is a picture frame made from a bike chain. The whole business is adding value to recycled materials, so it’s ironic that they don’t mention that aspect in their definition of upcycling.

If you are interested in donating recycled materials and waste to organizations and brands that upcycle, start with TerraCycle. You can also try a project at home.


glass mason jars with pasta and spices

Unlike downcycling and upcycling, precycling does not really fall under the umbrella of recycling. As the name suggests, it precedes the recycling process.

Precycling means adopting a lifestyle that produces a relatively small amount of materials that end up in a landfill or recycling bin. This consumer mindset emphasizes buying products that can be reused indefinitely or at least for many months.

Bea Johnson epitomizes precycling. Check out her site, Zero Waste Home, if you want some more inspiration and advice on reducing waste.

How Will You Cycle?

If you want to go beyond recycling and have a bigger positive impact on the environment, try experimenting with upcycling and precycling. You don’t need to be a DIY guru or lifestyle expert to donate some materials and tweak your shopping habits.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

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