When Is Recycling Actually Downcycling?

Posted on 13 May 2017 02:16

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In my article explaining the meanings of plastic recycling codes, I listed the various types of products for which these different types of recycled plastic are used. In other words, I described what happens to the plastic you put in your recycling bins. If you read that article, you will discover that those circular arrows, which seem to indicate a never-ending stream of recycling, again and again, are misleading. Many times, recycled plastic is turned into products that are not themselves likely to be recycled. This is known as downcycling.

When is recycling considered downcycling?

Well, first, let's try to figure out what true recycling is. Just because you reclaim a material and use it to make something else does not mean you are really REcycling. Why? Because a true recycle is a closed loop. In other words, real recycling is taking a material and using it to produce the same product, over and over. Glass is recycled, therefore, because you can turn it back into glass over and over. This is because, over time, glass is still essentially glass. The same thing goes for metal. This doesn't mean that it is always practical to recycle, but metal can be used to produce metal, over and over again, without end. It doesn't degrade over time. So, in order for recycling to truly be recycling, the resultant product must itself be recyclable.

While metal and glass are theoretically (although not always practically) infinitely recyclable, plastic and paper, unfortunately, are not.

Let's start with paper. Have you ever wondered why one-hundred percent recycled paper isn't used for paper products containing recycled paper? This is because the quality of paper degrades as it is turned into mulch and back into paper. Paper starts out as very long fibers of wood pulp material. Then, once the paper is once again ground up and turned into a pulp that can be used to make paper, the resultant fibers are very short. This cannot be used to make high-quality paper.

So, when paper is turned into paper, it is downcycled. The resultant product is both inferior, and many times, not itself recyclable. Recycled paper can easily be turned into paper towels, for instance. Paper towels are a low-quality paper and they cannot themselves be recycled, especially since we use them to clean up household messes. Toilet paper is another example which probably needs no explanation.

Downcycling of paper is still very valuable! It reduces the need for virgin wood in producing many types of paper products. However, the best way to decrease the need for virgin wood pulp for paper is to reduce our use of paper! Nowadays, more and more companies are going paperless. Opting for paperless invoicing is one way to reduce the use of paper. You can also use cloths or sponges for household cleaning instead of paper towels, when possible.

The same that is true of paper is true of plastic. Many of the products produced with recycled plastic are not themselves recyclable. I listed many of those products in the article linked above. If you (and I hope you do) drop off your extra grocery bags in the grocery store bag drop-off bins, you may assume that they are all turned back into plastic bags. While many are, much of this material, along with other plastic films, are not used to make bags, but instead are used in products such as composite lumber, pipe, buckets, fencing, etc. Some of the products are actually recyclable but are quite unlikely to be recycled because they usually must be dropped off at specialty locations, and not all municipalities have these locations. Others, like composite lumber, cannot be recycled and will ultimately find its way into the landfill. Most plastic, in fact, will.

You can see that semantically, the term downcycling doesn't make sense. There is no cycle but instead a series of steps that ultimately lead to a landfill. The term is used simply to differentiate this type or re-use with true recycling. And, where there is downcycling there is upcycling.

What is Upcycling?

Notice that, in both recycling and downcycling, it is the raw materials we are concerned with. A glass bottle has its form destroyed when it is recycled, but the raw material, glass, is not lost and can be made into more of the same material. This can be true of plastic, whether it is recycled or downcycled. Upcycling, however, is not concerned with raw material, but with the form.

Many old products can be used in ways they were never intended. An old door, for example, may make a great shelf, workbench, or even headboard for your bed. A pallet, whether plastic or wood, might be used for all sorts of purposes. The wood from pallets can be taken apart and used to make new things, or the pallet itself could be used as the basis of something else. Today, upcycling is very trendy and is an industry unto itself. A search of the popular selling site Etsy will reveal thousands of such products, where old products have been used to make new handcrafted ones. So upcycling means that we simply repurpose a product for whatever our needs, and imagination, can reveal.

Terracycle, which I've mentioned before at CulinaryLore in my article about greenwashing, is a company that specializes in upcycling. Their products are made from reclaimed materials, especially food wrappers. I mentioned this company in my article about greenwashing, where I first mentioned upcycling. If you read that article, you will see that, in my opinion, not all upcycling is created equal and sometimes upcycling is just another type of greenwashing.

While recycling of any kind cannot be condemned, it is important to know that the term is misleading and that most products and materials eventually end up being thrown away. Recycling, then, while valuable, is just a band-aid. This doesn't mean you should stop doing it, though. Remember those grocery store bag drop-offs? Well, they are for much more than just grocery bags! In a later article, I'll explain all about it.

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