What Are Upcycled Materials?

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with what recycling is, but upcycling or downcycling—not so much. So, here are some working definitions:

  • Recycling is the process of breaking products down to their basic materials, which are then used to make new products.
  • Downcycling is when recycling results in new products that have less value than the originals.
  • Upcycling is when recycling preserves the value of the original materials and adds more value so that the new products have more value than the originals.

The basic difference between downcycling and upcycling is that downcycling creates a lower-value version of the same product while upcycling transforms recycled materials into a different, higher-value item. Currently, most recycling is downcycling.

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What is Embodied Value?

All products carry embodied value. Value is added to a product at every stage in its creation, from the extraction and acquisition of raw materials to the distribution, sale, and use of the item. That value is in the form of the costs, time, labor, and additional investments associated with manufacturing the product and getting it into the hands of consumers. All products also have an environmental impact in terms of the carbon they embody.

This means that the carbon footprint is measured against the material. The amount of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that are emitted during the extraction of raw materials from the ground, transportation, refining, processing & assembly, and more are all taken into account.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) Whole Life Carbon Assessment approach and Environmental Product Declarations have helped to simplify and better face the problems of measuring and quantifying the embodied carbon in products in recent years (EPDs). Four essential stages have been identified by RICS (Product, Construction Process, Use and End of Life).

These can be used to assign embodied carbon to specific components of a building’s materials and are further divided into subcategories. Such as:

  • A1-A3: Product stage
  • A4 and A5: Construction process stage: transport to site and construction installation process
  • B1: Use
  • B2: Maintenance
  • B3 and B4: Repair and replacement
  • B5: Refurbishment
  • B6: Operational energy use
  • B7: Operational water use
  • C1: Deconstruction and demolition process
  • C2: Transport
  • C3: Waste processing for reuse recovery or recycling
  • C4: Disposal
  • D: Benefits and loads beyond the system boundary

The concepts of embodied value and upcycling are key to understanding the larger concept of a circular economy.

What Is a Circular Economy?

In a linear economy, which is what the world has known for most of human history, resources are mined or harvested or otherwise extracted from the environment to create products that are used or consumed until they are no longer of use, and then discarded. When the product no longer serves a useful purpose, it becomes waste headed for a landfill or other final resting place. And at that point, it loses all of its embodied value, and all of its embodied carbon is released into the environment. Recycling aims, with varying degrees of success, to preserve some of it.

But in a circular economy, the aim is to extend the useful life of products and their constituent materials indefinitely, retaining as much of their value as possible or, in the case of upcycling, increasing their value. That can happen through recycling, reuse, repurposing, reclamation and other ways, most of which involve deconstructing products into their component parts and materials.

Reuse has long been the practice with certain products. Think of the products that are packaged in reusable containers that need only be cleaned and refilled—the propane tank you return to the propane seller and swap out for a full tank, the milk delivered to doorsteps in glass bottles to be returned to the dairy company on the next delivery date, the beer that comes in large metal kegs that must be returned to get the hefty deposit refunded. These all are examples of items designed specifically to be reused until they wear out or become damaged and can no longer be used for the original purpose.

Repurposing an item is to find a good use for it other than what it was designed for, without changing its essential nature. This is what’s going on when someone turns a wooden barrel into a planter, or cuts down the legs on a kitchen table to make a coffee table, or paints a wooden pallet and hangs it on the side of a barn as folk art.

Reclamation most often is used to mean returning land to its original state after having been disturbed in some way, for example by drilling or mining or agricultural activities. But materials can also be reclaimed in the sense of deconstructing products and reclaiming certain elements. This is common in the construction industry, where valuable materials, particularly metals like copper and steel, are removed (or reclaimed) from the waste stream after a demolition job.

These methods and others can extend the useful life of products and materials well beyond what would be expected in a linear economy.

Upcycling by Design

A key challenge in trying to transition to a circular economy is redesigning products, processes, business models, and so on to support extending the useful life of products and materials, ideally through upcycling. Currently, most upcycled products are artisan-crafted, one-of-a-kind or few-of-a-kind items.

There are, however, attempts to design a business model that makes large-scale upcycling financially feasible. The fashion industry, for example, is seeing the emergence of brands specializing in upcycled fashion production using textile waste to create products that retailers can charge more for than they can for traditionally recycled goods. Another good example is making quality furniture from reclaimed wood.

One reason that upcycled products can be sold for more than the original products they came from is that consumers buy the “story” behind them. They are willing to pay more for what they perceive as authenticity and/or a provenance that attests to sustainable production. For example, items made from plastic bottles fished out of the ocean sell for a higher price when they are labeled and advertised as containing a certain percentage of recycled plastic, perhaps with a few facts related to the recycling of plastic removed from ocean waters.

How Upcycling Helps the Environment

Upcycling reuses existing materials to create something new, which reduces the need to use unsustainable materials such as plastic to create new items. It also minimizes extraction of natural resources and the energy expended in doing so. Consider the number of trees that would not have to be harvested if all paper was recycled and all furniture was constructed from upcycled used wood.

Upcycling also keeps used products and materials out of the solid waste stream and out of the nation’s landfills. Recycling or downcycling can extend their life for a while, but not for as long as is possible through upcycling. For example, plastics break down after being downcycled only a couple of times, but upcycling plastics into new and different products can prolong their useful life much longer.

Consuming fewer virgin resources not only preserves them, but also reduces the need to turn raw materials into manufactured products, which is a major source of carbon emissions. Even recycling processes emit some carbon. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturing in the industrial sector accounts for roughly a quarter of all carbon emissions in the United States. The more upcycling we do, the lower that number will be.

Everyone Can Upcycle

Real progress toward a circular economy will come when commercial enterprises begin designing products, processes, and business systems for the specific purpose of upcycling. But individuals and families can contribute as well by practicing upcycling on their own scale. Scroll through Pinterest and Etsy and you’ll find plenty of examples of old products reinvented as new ones worth more than the originals.

Those who want to contribute but lack the time, inclination, or creative streak to upcycle items on their own can find ways to get what would otherwise end up in a landfill into the hands of others who can upcycle them like Repurposed Materials, who knows how to take your materials and find them a new home.

Contact Repurposed Materials today to find out how we can help you find a new home for unwanted materials.