What is Upcycling?

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “What is UPcycling? Isn’t that the same as REcycling?” I’d have about fifteen cents. But it is a question I often see online, and I even saw a tweet (yeah, I said it… TWEET) that said something like “There are a lot of made-up words that piss me off, but none more than ‘upcycling’ – so ridiculous and pretentious!”

I’ll admit that I am usually the last to adopt new terminology. I boycotted saying “KFC” for years. (It’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, dammit!) But the upcycle vs. recycle debate actually makes sense and I’ll tell you why.  Hold on. Did I just admit that refusing to say “KFC” was irrational? Remind me to edit that out later.

My daughter is learning about Earth Day this week in school. Her class is talking endlessly about “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Awesome concepts, but not the same as upcycling. I’ll use a pile of newspaper as an example…

  1. I could REDUCE: If I have a daily subscription that I don’t read as often as I’d like, I could downgrade to just the Sunday paper. Even better, I could move to an online subscription and reduce the amount of paper that comes into my house.
  2. I could REUSE: Ok, so my husband likes to read the paper daily. I could take the old papers and use them to line the birdcage before trashing them… Reusing means that the paper will be used again as paper.
  3. I could RECYCLE: Once I have reduced and reused as much newspaper as possible, I recycle the rest – it will be broken down and made into new paper.

So how are these three R’s different from upcycling (besides the obvious answer: Upcycling begins with U?) The following are just a few examples of how I’ve upcycled newspaper. I have folded, bent and glued paper to make coasters. I have created beads. I have wrapped pencils in the comics and crossword puzzle. Upcycling uses the waste to create something more valuable than the original product, whereas recycling breaks down the waste to make a product of lesser quality.

upcycled newspaper

Examples of Upcycled Newspaper Projects

Am I saying that upcycling is somehow better than recycling? Absolutely not!! Keep on recycling. Save the earth and all that jazz. I’m just saying that the word “upcycle” is legit. Some might even say “2 legit 2 quit.” I wouldn’t say that, but some might.

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8 Responses

  1. mei says:

    Awesome definitions! I’ve been upcycling quite a bit too from upcycling dowels and old crates and making them into mounts for my stamps. The time and effort to creatively upcycle an item is why they are more valuable. They are always unique, previously enjoyed, and one-of-a-kind.
    Keep up the great work!
    http://myogastudio.ca to see my upcycled items!

  2. Well said, Liz! I love the way you distinguished the difference by using the same original product for each application~ And welcome to the team! We’re so glad you Love 2 Upcycle!

  3. Robyn Taylor says:

    Great article! Very funny and informative at the same time.

  4. Harmony says:

    This. Is. Perfect. I’ve had to try to explain this concept several times, and it gets easier every time I do, but I still get confused looks. I UPcycle various cloth products (shirts, pants, pillow cases, table clothes, curtains, sheets, etc., etc.) and turn them into NEW clothing items. Creating things that are unique and using something that was being discarded even though it was still in great shape. And too often people say “oh. So you’re recycling then!” ….no. Not exactly. :-)

  5. LOL…I recently did a similar post showing the difference between upcycling and repurposing.


    And just yesterday I made a reference to breaking out spontaneously with an 80s medley dance each time I hear “Can’t Touch This”.

    Thank goodness someone else out here is referencing the beloved MC Hammer!

  6. I also recently posted an article about the difference between upcycling and repurposing. I see people interchanging these all the time and it drives me a bit bonkers.


    And just yesterday I made mention to spontaneously breaking out in an 80s dance medley each time I hear “Can’t Touch This”. Thank goodness I’m not alone out here with references to the beloved MC Hammer.

  7. a ferreira says:

    Upcycling is definitely better than recycling! Recycling consumes huge amounts of energy. Upcyling is recreating, you put something from your heart into it! Love your upcycled items, congratulations!

  8. I always say: Upcycling is where I use an item to make another item, and Recycling is where I put the item in the bin/bag to be taken away and made into a similar item.
    I don’t think upcycling always makes the item more valuable, it simply gives it a new lease of life.

    Njoing the articles…tweet tweet :-)

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