What is Downcycling?

What Is Downcycling?

Recycling is a great way to give the things we throw away everyday a second chance at life. That plastic soda bottle from lunch can be reinvented as carpet fibers while the morning’s newspapers get turned into cardboard boxes. But not all recycling is created equal: while we throw glass, metals, plastics, and paper into the same green bin, the process of recycling each of those material is pretty different. A lot of this trash will go on to be reused over and over again, but some will be gradually destroyed by the recycling process. This slow destruction of materials – and the subsequent production of lesser quality goods – is known as downcycling.

Buy recycled goods

Buy recycled goods

No matter what’s being recovered, the basic idea of recycling remains the same: to break down finished products into their basic parts – be that melted glass, plastic polymers, or paper pulp – and then to use those materials to make new things. For some items this process can be repeated indefinitely: both pure glass and metals like aluminum can be melted down and reformed any number of times without any loss in quality. In other words, the glass in an empty pickle jar you drop off at your local recycling center could have been dropped off there a hundred times before and you’d never be able to tell the difference. This makes glass and aluminum very eco-friendly: manufacturers use 30% less energy when they switch to reclaimed glass and  95% less when using recycled aluminum, all without sacrificing any quality.

Paper and plastic, on the other hand, are much less durable and can only be recycled a finite number of times. The fibers in paper are shortened each time they’re processed, which means that paper pulp can be reused six or so times before the fibers are too weak to be reused. So the clean white printer paper you put in the recycle bin at work will be downcycled into newspaper or paper towels, and eventually those fibers will have to be disposed of. Fortunately, even heavily used paper fibers can still be composted, which means that paper products can meet an eco-friendly end.

Plastic, however, never biodegrades, which is why downcycling is an even bigger concern when it comes to this environmental menace. The polymers that make up plastics can only be reused a few times before they’re too degraded for further use, and very few plastics can be reclaimed for their original purpose. Instead, soda bottles and plastic bags end up as lower quality items like fleece and siding. Even worse, downcycled plastic products will frequently require extra treatment and are not themselves recyclable – that soda bottle can be turned into carpet fibers, but carpet fibers can’t be turned back into soda bottles. This means that plastic may start its life as a milk carton in your fridge, but if recycled it will most likely end up as a bench, car part, or trash can in a landfill.

While downcycling might sound depressing, it’s no reason to give up on recycling. Even if plastic can’t be used forever we can all still help conserve resources by making sure we reuse as much as we can. Remember, every bit of plastic that becomes a sleeping bag or child’s toy reduces the need for new plastic and also decreases the amount of energy used for manufacturing. So while glass or aluminum is always the better option, when you’re stuck with plastic remember that you’re still helping the environment with every disposable bottle you drop in a green bin and every recycled product you buy.


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