Recycling, downcycling and the need for a circular economy

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What happens to the plastic and paper that you’ve carefully sorted into separate bins?

We like to believe those old items are remade into new items and get cycled over and over again. In reality, most recycling is really ‘downcycling’. And while recycling, downcycling, and upcycling all help to preserve the life of raw materials and some of the value that went into creating them, there might be better ways to do it.

Products are a carrier of embodied value

Before products are sold, raw materials first have to be extracted, refined into something more useful, then assembled into components, and finally into products. Every step along the supply chain requires natural resources, energy, labor, and time. Every step might require transportation, and every step might come with environmental impacts. The sum of these efforts is stored or embodied in a product. Every product has embodied energy, embodied impacts, etc. When a product is discarded at the end of its life cycle, all the effort and value that went into it is destroyed along with it. All forms of recycling are an attempt to preserve some of that embodied value. Not all of them do so successfully, however.

Value hill graphic showing that more value is conserved when reusing, refurbishing and remanufacturing than when recycling or downcycling.
In a circular economy, a product is preserved as close to its finished state as possible, which preserves as much of its value as possible.

What’s the difference between recycling, upcycling, and downcycling?

Recycling is the process by which waste products are broken down to their basic materials, and remade into new products. Ideally, this should mean less need for virgin raw materials. Instead of mining or creating new raw materials, it should be possible to use recycled materials instead. Then, the energy, time and labor which went into extracting the raw materials would only need to happen once, and those materials would constantly be cycled and recycled.

In practice, not all recycling is created equal. Some countries include incineration in their ‘recycling’ rates, while some materials become less and less useful the more they are recycled, and so don’t necessarily displace virgin raw materials. In the end, most of what we refer to as ‘recycling’ is really ‘downcycling’.

The nature of downcycling: value is not conserved 

Downcycling begins the same way as recycling: products are broken down into their constituent materials and remade into something new. When those new products have less value than the original product, this is referred to as “downcycling”. For example, concrete can last for hundreds of years, but when old buildings are demolished, sometimes after a few short decades, much of the crushed concrete is downcycled into road filler: a cheap product with less value and less complexity than virgin concrete.

Some materials slowly break down each time they go through the recycling process, other materials tend to accumulate impurities. If the quality degrades every time we ‘recycle’ a product, it enters a spiral until its material is useless. For example plastic can recycle well, if it is properly cleaned and sorted. Off-cuts in plastic product manufacturing plants, for example, are relatively easy to recycle. Real-world plastic products, however, might be made from a half-dozen types of plastic, often several in one product. Cleaning and separating all those into separate streams is nigh impossible, and although there are some promising ideas to do this automatically, most of the time the recyclable material ends up being of inferior quality and gets downcycled into simpler products, like doormats, carpeting, fleece, or even roads.

Paper is easier to sort and easier to recycle, but it is much harder to remake high-quality writing paper into new high-quality writing paper. Most recycled paper becomes cardboard, tissue paper, and manila folders.

The cost of downcycling is another challenging aspect. The value embodied in the raw material is conserved, but new energy and time have to be used to break down a product into recycled raw material. When oil prices are low and labor is expensive, recycled plastic can be significantly more expensive than virgin plastic, and this can be true for other materials as well. One way around this is to incorporate the story of the materials into a new product, as often happens when upcycling.

Downcycling is a process which decreases the value of materials.

Is upcycling better?

Upcycling generally means simply turning a low-value product into a high-value product. Upcycling might not require breaking down the old product into constituent materials. For example, The Upcycle in Amsterdam hosts workshops to turn old bike tyres into new belts, old shopping bags into notebooks. Broken bicycles and motorbikes can be remade into lamps and furniture. 

Most of the time, the history of the waste becomes part of the story of the new product. Plastic Whale fishes waste out of the Dutch canals and remakes PET bottles into office furniture. The furniture (and the recycled plastic) is worth a premium, because of its history.

Reducing consumption

Although downcycling is not perfect, recycling is generally preferable to landfill or incineration. Any kind of recycling helps keep materials in use, which can potentially reduce demand for some materials. Even downcycling paper and plastic into new products means that those new products don’t have to be created from virgin paper and plastic, and this comes with environmental benefits. For example, Dutch-based company Rebottled upcycles empty wine bottles into designer glassware. They have diverted over 140 000 glass bottles from going to waste to date. What’s more, the energy that was used to create the original glass bottles has been preserved. Rebottled has thus ‘saved’ at least 63MWh compared to the production process of new glass. 

Downcycling does not conserve the energy, natural resources and time that went into making a finished bottled product, though it does conserve some of the sand and the energy used to make it into glass.

All types of recycling help to prolong the useful life of raw materials to some extent, and that’s no bad thing. Even new road filler means less sand and gravel is needed. But it’s not ideal, and there are better avenues to maintain the value of materials at their highest.

Beyond Downcycling: the need for a circular economy

Recycling and downcycling preserve raw materials. But breaking a product all the way back down and perhaps building it all the way back up takes further energy and time and labor. While it is better to downcycle than to incinerate or dump the materials in a landfill, it would be better still to reuse the components or to refurbish the entire product. Reusing components would preserve the embodied value in the entire components, not just the materials. Repairing an entire product would preserve the time, effort, and transportation that went into assembling the components. What’s more, for complex products such as electronics, not all critical metals are recovered in the recycling process. By extending the life of electronics through reuse and remanufacturing, these valuable materials are able to stay in circulation.

Electronic products like laptops and mobile phones are made up of beautifully complex technological components, they are so much more valuable and intricate than the raw materials and resources from which they originated. The more of that complexity we can conserve, the more value we can hold on to and the less impact we can have.

This – the preservation of embodied value – is at the core of a circular economy. Supply chains are long and complex, and there is a lot of effort and potential environmental impact between extraction and retail sale. The closer to the retail side we can preserve a product, the more the complexity of the product is retained, the more embodied value is preserved and the smaller the environmental impact.

Current recycling targets encourage a blanket proportion of all materials to be recycled, for example, 40%. This is a very simple and necessary target, but it is incomplete. The next step is to incorporate more of the nuances about just how much value is conserved, how much virgin material is being displaced, and how much of that environmental impact we are saving.

Graph of recycling rates in the European Union. While some countries appear to have high percentages, much of that waste is really downcycled, or even incinerated.
EU recycling rates 2017

The question, then, isn’t whether upcycling is better than downcycling. Conserving products at their highest level starts with repair, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and only if we cannot do so: recycling and downcycling. 


Any questions?

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Marketing and Communications Intern,
Agnes Weber

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