Upcycling vs Recycling – What’s the Difference?

5th January 2024

By Graham Matthews

Upcycling and recycling are two ways to reuse materials that reduce waste and carbon emissions. Sometimes the terms are incorrectly used interchangeably as they’re both sustainable practices, but the processes are different. Recycling is well established while upcycling is growing in popularity.

Both recycling and upcycling have many environmental benefits and are sustainable compared to disposing of rubbish. However, recycling is better for certain items and upcycling is more suitable for others, as the ways the materials are reused differ.

Understand the differences between upcycling and recycling and decide which action is best for your waste as we explain the two processes.

upcycled clothes storage.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of taking an item or material that’s no longer needed and giving it a fresh use. It’s rejuvenating waste to turn it into something new and useful. This could be improving its condition so it can be reused for its initial purpose or converting it or combining it with other materials for a new function.

Generally, something is upcycled if discarded materials are either repaired, refurbished, or repurposed. Additional materials, resources, and a bit of creativity are required for upcycling many things. Old items are modified and given a second life, which saves them from being recycled or disposed of at a landfill site.

Upcycling examples

With a splash of creativity, almost any old item or material can be upcycled. There are examples of upcycling everywhere you look, from refurbished sofas to patched-up denim jackets. Find inspiration with some of these common upcycling examples:

  • Upcycled furniture – putting a new cover on an old sofa, painting a chest of drawers, or using empty crates to create a coffee table are all examples of upcycling furniture.
  • Glass bottle lamps – clean and dry an empty wine, spirit, or other tall glass bottle and add a battery-powered light string inside to make an effective table lamp.
  • Wooden pallet planters – flip a wooden pallet on its side and attach it to a wall or fence, then add a base to form a planter for herbs or other small plants.
  • Cutlery hooks – unwanted spoons and forks can be bent and attached to a block to craft DIY coat hooks. Ensure all prongs are covered to stay safe.
  • Ladder clothing rack – transform a small wooden stepladder into a clothing rack by placing a couple of waste wood planks between the two and a clothes rail across the top.
upcycled wine bottles with candles.

What is recycling?

Recycling is the industrial process that breaks down waste items and materials for reuse. The recycled materials are then used to form a new product. This is either the same as the original item (such as creating glass bottles from recycled glass) or something new (like making toys from recycled plastic drink bottles).

The process of recycling creates new raw materials from the original product. Glass can be recycled infinitely but for paper and plastic, there is a limit. In many cases, recycled paper, cardboard, and some plastics are of poorer quality compared to brand-new materials as they’re weaker. Still, recycling is much more sustainable than sending waste to landfill.

Examples of recycling

Many materials are recyclable when they reach the end of their life, including anything you can put in your household recycling bin. Examples of recycling range from empty glass beer bottles and jam jars from your home to the huge volumes of cardboard food packaging that shops get through. Some common recycling examples include:

  • Glass recycling – empty glass bottles and jars are infinitely recyclable as glass can be broken down and repurposed to form fresh products without losing quality.
  • Paper recycling – most paper types are recyclable including newspapers, magazines, brochures, envelopes, and leaflets. They can be turned into pulp that’s used to create new paper products.
  • Cardboard recycling – lots of cardboard is recyclable, such as delivery boxes, greeting cards, and corrugated cardboard. The process is similar to recycling paper with recycled cardboard often used to make new boxes.
  • Plastic recycling – there are various plastic types, and some are recyclable. The plastic is separated by type, broken down and melted to form pellets that are then used to create new items.
  • Dry mixed recycling – for convenience businesses can use dry mixed recycling bins that combine paper, cardboard, plastic, and metals (drink and food cans). They’re sorted by material and recycled in individual streams to form new paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal products.
glass bottles and jars for recycling.

The differences between 
upcycling and recycling

Upcycling and recycling are both sustainable and environmentally friendly options for dealing with waste. Choosing to upcycle or recycle can depend on what types and volumes of unwanted materials you’ve got. These are the main differences between the two processes to help you decide whether your items should be upcycled or recycled:

  • Recycling breaks down items into raw materials, which are used to create new products. The quality varies based on the original material.
  • Upcycling products use the existing materials and can maintain or improve the quality, such as refurbishing an old sofa.
  • The process of recycling requires energy to transport the waste, break it down, and recycle it into fresh materials.
  • Upcycling aims to keep the original products and materials in use and circulation for as long as possible.
  • The market for recycled products and materials is huge and continues to grow. It’s flexible as many materials are recyclable and can be used to form a wide array of products.
  • There are restrictions on upcycled products as they must be used in their current form and the commercial demand is much less than for recycled raw materials.

Get more inspiration and learn about recycling and upcycling in our expert waste guides.

At Divert we’re all about diverting waste away from landfill and providing a range of commercial recycling services for businesses. This includes glass, paper, cardboard, and plastic collections. Get a free quote today for help with your recycling – call 0333 444 0118 or contact us online.