Recycling – Upcycling, Repurpose or Downcycling

The term recycling is already very common in the sustainability and general dialogues, however it is important to pay attention to its meaning and the ways that materials are recycled.

To recycle means, according to the Oxford dictionary [1], to “Convert (waste) into reusable material” or to “Use again”; if we analyze the word it means to put a material back into its cycle, more specifically its life cycle.

A life cycle of a material can be considered from its extraction until its disposal; a recyclable material can be reintroduced in its cycle and instead of being disposed it can be used again.

However, there are different ways to reuse materials, which can be divided in three main categories: repurpose, downcycling or upcycling. Their meaning is to either reuse the material as it is, or by removing value from it, or by adding value to it respectively.

To better understand each of the terms, it is interesting to see examples of each of them.

A very simple example that relates to all of the concepts can be the reuse of car or truck tires. In Brazil, the amount of waste produced by discarded tires is an issue, not only for environmental reason but also regarding public health (as the accumulated water on the tires may be incubators for mosquitoes [2]).

To repurpose a material, is to reuse the (waste) material in its original state, but to a different purpose. Regarding the tires example in the Brazilian context, this material can be repurposed by simply using it in contention walls [3-page 70], by filling it with earth creating a resistant and heavy barrier.

To downcycle is to use (waste) material in products of lesser quality or that avoid the reinsertion of the material in its original cycle. Again regarding the tires, another use for them that is commonly used in Brazil is as an aggregate in asphalt production [3 page]. The tires are triturated and then added to the asphalt composition. This process ends the life cycle of the tires, making them useless for future use.

Upcycling is to use (waste) material in a way that adds value to it, and that allows it to be repourposed, or downcycled or even upcycled again in the future. This is the most difficult alternative, but also the preferred one, as still allows for different future uses. One example regarding the tires is to make furniture using them, by overlaying other materials on top of it, it is possible to make usable furniture based on this product. This use still allows the two previous examples to happen in the future if necessary.

In conclusion, regarding recycling it should always be aimed to upcycle (waste) materials or products, allowing that they maintain their properties for future different uses; if not possible then repurposing should be the alternative, and when there is no other option (because of material quality or lack of feasible possibilities) it should be downcycled.

[1] Oxford Dictionary. Recycle.

[2] ALVES, L. Water Crisis in Brazil May Have Led to Dengue Increase -

[3] Andrade, Hered de Souza. "Pneus inservíveis: alternativas possíveis de reutilização." (Insertible tires : possible alternatives to reuse) UFSC - Federal University of Santa Catarina (2014).