So just what is downcycling? Downcycling is what happens to many products when we recycle them; they’re turned into a material of lesser quality and value. So paper, which can be recycled up to about five times, is downcyled each time it’s recycled. It might start off as a high quality writing paper; it then becomes copy paper; then a packing box for sending through the mail; and down the line it goes until it finally become toilet tissue or similar. Some materials, like paper, HDPE plastic and rubber can only ever be downcycled; it’s inherent in nature of the product, in that its physical characteristics mean it can only be recycled a finite no of times.
Not all materials which are recycled are turned into lower quality products. Glass and steel are infinitely recyclable and can be turned into products of equal or even higher value than the original. Some plastic can be upcycled; PET plastic (used for soda bottles) can be turned into high value fleece clothing. This is the opposite of downcycling and is called upcycling.
Recycled Until Unusable
Whether a product is upcycled or downcycled, remember that mechanically recycling it requires energy. Glass and plastic must be melted, paper de-inked and pulped, steel smelted. There is of course a cost in that, so it’s always better to try and reuse a product before recycling it – remember the environmentalist mantra ’reduce, reuse, recycle’. (Of course, it’s better not to have bought the thing in the first place, but if you’ve got it, try to reuse it.)
By reusing a product, either in its original form or by putting it to another use, you are in effect downcycling or upcycling. Most products can be downcycled or upcycled; all you have to do is find a use for it. So for example you could reuse a rubber tire as a child’s swing, or turn a wine bottle into a table lamp (very popular in the 1970s…). This can get competitive. Some may say you’ve downcycled the product, but you may love your lamp so much you say it’s been upcycled. The important thing however is that it’s been reused; it has another use which is separate from its original intention and it hasn’t gone into a landfill site! -MARK LEE