Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.
The first recorded use of the term upcycling was by Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH in an interview by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994.
We talked about the impending EU Demolition Waste Streams directive. "Recycling," he said, "I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling where old products are given more value not less." He despairs of the German situation and recalls the supply of a large quantity of reclaimed woodblock from an English supplier for a contract in Nuremberg while just down the road a load of similar blocks was scrapped. In the road outside his premises, was the result of the Germans' demolition waste recycling. It was a pinky looking aggregate with pieces of handmade brick, old tiles and discernible parts of useful old items mixed with crushed concrete. Is this the future for Europe?
The upcycling concept was also the theme of the 1999 book with the same title written by Johannes F. Hartkemeyer. The concept was later incorporated by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They state that the goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. This reduces the consumption of new raw materials when creating new products. Reducing the use of new raw materials can result in a reduction of energy usage, air pollution, water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.
Upcycling is the opposite of downcycling, which is the other half of the recycling process. Downcycling involves converting materials and products into new materials of lesser quality. Most recycling involves converting or extracting useful materials from a product and creating a different product or material.
For example, during the recycling process of plastics other than those used to create bottles, many different types of plastics are mixed, resulting in a hybrid. This hybrid is used in the manufacturing of plastic lumber applications. However, unlike the engineered polymer ABS which hold properties of several plastics well, recycled plastics suffer phase-separation that causes structural weakness in the final product.
In developing countries, where new raw materials are often expensive, upcycling is commonly practiced, largely due to impoverished conditions.
Upcycling has seen an increase in use due to its current marketability and the lowered cost of reused materials. Inhabitat, a blog devoted to sustainability and design, holds an annual upcycling design competition with entries coming from around the globe.
In recent years, the US-based company TerraCycle has brought upcycling into mainstream by creating partnerships with major brands, such J&J, Kraft Foods, BIC, and Aveeno, to upcycle their packaging into new items, all while donating money to schools and charity. Such a large scale operation is only possible with the help of thousands of consumers around the world committed to divert the (otherwise) garbage from the landfill, who send them their used products and packaging. Also, in 2010, the company UpcycleBaby of Richmond, Vermont (www.upcyclebaby.com) was established and was featured in Vermont Life magazine (Spring 2012 issue).
Upcycling has shown significant growth across the United States. For example, the number of products on Etsy tagged with the word "upcycled" increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later—an increase of 275 percent. As of October 2011, that number stood at nearly 167,000,] an additional increase of 450%.