What is Downcycling?

Sara Schmidt

Once considered an optional lifestyle choice, recycling has become a commonplace activity in most areas. One type of recycling, called downcycling, involves re-purposing a material into a new product of lesser quality. This can include varying grades of plastic, paper products, and other materials.

Recycling has become common in most cities and towns in the U.S.
Recycling has become common in most cities and towns in the U.S.

Downcycling is also known as downstream recycling. It is most common in terms of industrial materials. These products lose their value as they are recycled, which limits their capacity for new use. Their recycled form is typically both weaker and cheaper than their original configuration. White writing paper, for example, is often downcycled into cardboard; once downcycled to this new form, it can no longer be used as white paper again.

Glass products may be made into something of equal or greater value.
Glass products may be made into something of equal or greater value.

Resulting materials from this process have lost viability and are considered an example of backward compatibility based on planned obsolescence, a strategy of companies to require new purchases due to their products having a short lifespan. Another example of downcycling includes the use of plastic components. Plastics that are downcycled result in lower grade products.

Giving products a new life is considered a good way to reuse materials and avoid waste. Once downcycled to their full capacity, however, these materials are eventually so degraded that they cannot be reused further. Since downcycled products are considered of lower quality than their original form, they cannot be used in remaking their original product.

Products are provided with codes to determine their grades and whether or not they may be recycled. Plastic, glass, and aluminum products coded with the number one may be remade into something of equal or greater value. This type of recycling is known as upcycling, and represents the forward compatibility of recycled components. Materials available for downcycling, such as water, juice, and milk bottles, are coded with the number two. They may not be used to contain food-grade items again upon being downcycled.

Items available for downcycling often require additional chemicals, energy, and other treatments in order to transform them into something usable. Durable plastic products in particular require much additional treatment. Trash bins, tables, and chairs are also considered materials with a high energy cost to recycle.

When a product reaches a code seven, it is considered no longer recyclable. This usually occurs when a substance is blended with other substances, such as different types of plastic with various recycling codes. Since these products can no longer be made into new ones, they will either have to be reused or discarded, typically in a landfill.

Downcycling involves repurposing a material, like aluminum cans, into a product of lesser quality, such as jewelry.
Downcycling involves repurposing a material, like aluminum cans, into a product of lesser quality, such as jewelry.

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Discussion Comments

MissDaphne

@EdRick - As a teacher, I'm right there with you, and I get really frustrated when my colleagues use paper so wastefully sometimes.

Something else people might not realize is that shredding paper (especially into the ideally secure diamond shape) causes it to be downcycled. It shortens the fibers, meaning it can be used only as lower-grade paper or cardboard and will reach the end of its lifespan sooner.

So don't toss everything into the shred bin! Separate out the pages that are sensitive and shred those, certainly, but the envelopes, blank pages in between, etc. should be placed whole into the recycle bin.

EdRick

Fascinating! Thinking about how recycled items will eventually reach a point when they can't be recycled makes you pay attention to how important the first two R's are: reduce and reuse! Don't buy so many plastic bottles; teachers, use both sides of the page when you make copies. Students, do the next night's homework on the back of the paper, too.

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