The difference between upcycling and recycling

Upcycled planting jars

We all know that recycling is a good thing. Long before the Extinction Rebellion protests kept environmentalism in the headlines, most people were trying to send as little of their waste to landfill as possible. 

Almost half of household waste in Britain is recycled. There is a government target for that to hit 50% by 2020. For people who really want to make a difference, there is another step to reducing the waste they generate. Upcycling. 

What is the difference between upcycling and recycling?

Everybody knows what recycling is. You put your plastics, metals and glass into the recycling bin, the council takes it away and eventually it gets turned into more cans, glasses or even roads. It is a hands-off process. Your only involvement is choosing which bin your waste items get placed in. The rest is up to the council and various recycling plants. 

Upcycling, on the other hand, is a far more hands-on activity. Instead of throwing all of your used items into the recycling bin, you find new creative uses for them around the house. It is the re-use part of reduce, re-use, recycle.

This does not mean that you need to invest in a hard-hat and some heavy construction tools. We aren’t talking about building a garden shed out of toilet roll tubes or a model plane out of Coke cans. Although they would be fun projects!

Upcycling vs recycling

An important caveat here: recycling is important. We are in no way suggesting that it isn’t. With that clarified, let’s take a look at why upcycling your waste before you recycle it can be a good idea.

Recycling uses a lot of energy. Less energy than making a product from its raw materials, but lots of energy nonetheless. Recycled glass, for example, only uses 10-15% less energy than its non-recycled counterparts. That is because glass is made by melting sand (and a few other materials) then allowing it to cool again. It takes a huge amount of energy to generate the temperatures that requires. 

Instead of sending your wine bottles to the recycling facility, you could consider re-using them around the home. /">This Pinterest board has some fantastic ideas for reusing your glass bottles. From storing sweets to making a homemade chandelier.

Metal items are far better than glass for recycling. Recycled metal products can use 94% less energy to make than their initial incarnation. That is because metals involve lots of mining, transportation and smelting. Once this work has been done, it’s relatively easy to melt them down and reshape them into something new. 

There are some amazing ideas on this blog for upcycling your used metal drink cans around the house. Candle holders and cutlery stands are particularly practical projects. 

Upcycling inspiration

We could (and probably will, one day) fill several blog posts with themed upcycling inspiration. For now, here are some of our favourite ideas from Pinterest:

Ok, this upcycled shirt is not a small project. But if you are good with a sewing machine, it would be an amazing thing to do. Not only would you be wearing something totally unique - you would also be doing your bit to combat the perils (bot environmental and humanitarian) of fast fashion.

Whilst it doesn't strictly fall into this article's theme of upcycling your household waste, this guitar shelving unit is a great example of something that might otherwise have been thrown away or used as firewood. It's unusual and rather beautiful.

This scrap waste has been transformed by scupltor Karen Cuolito stands a staggering 30 feet high. It's incredible what a little imagination can do - turning landfill into conceptual art.

Finally... we know you will never actually do this. But it would be great for parties (!) Upcycling an old sea container feels almost poetic.