Published: April 15, 2021 By

For many people, they have been recycling for many years, but may not know exactly what is happening to the materials that they are working so hard to recycle. Different materials have varying capabilities of being recycled. Aluminum cans can be recycled relatively infinitely to be made into more aluminum cans. By contrast, many plastic bottles are not quite so recyclable. However, they can be recycled into all sorts of other items that you might not think would be made of old plastic bottles. There are endless possibilities for recyclable materials. Keep reading for more examples and details for how this process works!

Upcycled vs Downcycled Materials

  • While there are many pathways that a given recycled item may take, some include turning the item right back into a new version of the same item (this is most ideal when it is possible), while others include turning the recycled material into new products.

  • Upcycle

    • Turning a recycled material into something of equal or greater value/quality than the original product

    • Upcycling lengthens the life of a given material 

    • As an example, aluminum can gets processed back into an aluminum can

    • Upcycling is often also synonymous with reuse of something which would have been thrown away

    • In the realm of reuse, most anything can be upcycled, or made into something new and useful. However, when it comes to the more industrial process of upcycling like an aluminum can being turned into another aluminum can, upcycling is reliant on the fact that the material can be melted down and be reformed to make the same product again (metals and glass are great examples of this)

    • Check out this podcast if you want to learn more 

  • Downcycle

    • Often the outcome of traditional recycling

    • Turning a product into another product, however, this cycle cannot be repeated infinitely. 

    • An example is a plastic bottle that gets turned into a fleece jacket

    • Things generally get downcycled when the material that is being recycled cannot be just melted down and create the same product again. 

    • PET plastics (like soda bottles) are hard to recycle forever because when they are melted, to recreate a new product, the plastic gets weaker and weaker each time this occurs. Virgin materials also often have to be added into the new product in order to account for the weakening that the recycling process causes.

Materials that are easily Upcycled

  • Paper

    • Recycled office paper may be turned into office paper

    • Often times it is also downcycled and turned into toilet paper, paper towels, and notebook paper, generally as a result of contamination and lack of adequate sorting

  • Cardboard

    • Recycled cardboard may be turned into new cardboard

    • When downcycled, it is turned into paper bags, packaging, paperboard

  • Metals

Materials that can be upcycled but often times downcycled

  • Plastics

    • Recycled plastics may be turned into new bottles, buckets, carpets, backpacks, fleece, sleeping bag/jacket insulation. 

  • Glass

Materials that are difficult to upcycle

  • Hard to Recycle Materials are more difficult to collect, which inherently make them more difficult to upcycle. However, once collected, they are relatively easy to upcycle.

  • Plastic bags. Again, plastic bags cannot be put in a normal recycling bin, so collection is again an issue. Along with that, the type of plastic that plastic bags are made of are exceptionally hard to recycle at all. 

  • Electronics. Many toxins  are found in electronics such as lead and mercury which can make them more dangerous to recycle. Along with this, collection is often also an issue as electronics cannot be put into a curbside recycling bin. They must instead be taken to facilities which recycle them. 

  • Styrofoam (or polystyrene) is hard to recycle for a few reasons. These usually include the fact that it is often contaminated with food, and it has an incredibly low density. Because of this incredibly low density, it is not cost effective to transport polystyrene because it takes up a lot of space, with very little real material that is capable of being recycled.

Downcycling Example - How are plastics made into fleece?

  1. Plastic bottles are collected. Different colored bottles will make different colored fabrics.

  2. Bottles and caps are separated and shredded into very small pieces, and dried. 

  3. The plastic is heated and put through a machine, called an extruder, which forms the heated plastic into long strands. 

  4. The long strands are then broken up into smaller pieces and turned into a wool like material.

  5. This material is then put through a machine that makes all the strands face the same direction and then spins the strands into a yarn.

Upcycling Example - White Office Paper

  1. Collection of white paper that has not been contaminated with food/drink or other substances which may decrease the quality of the paper 

  2. The paper is shredded into very small pieces. 

  3. Water and chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium silicate in order to break the paper down into the paper fibers to form pulp 

  4. The pulp is placed into a floatation tank which removes inks and dyes from the pulp 

  5. The pulp passes through rollers which press the water out of the pulp. 

  6. The partially dried pulp is run through steam heat rollers which both dry and press the paper to create one, very long sheet of paper which can then be cut into more usable sized pieces of paper.

What are some companies producing products that use recycled materials?

  • Recover Brands which creates clothing out of plastic bottles. Just 8 plastic bottles can create one t-shirt! 

  • Patagonia  which creates fleece using a very similar process discussed above from plastic bottles

  • Bureo which is taking plastic fishing nets out of the ocean and creating skateboards, sunglasses, and clothing from the plastic they fish out of the ocean. 

  •  Recycle Bikes which makes bikes out of 80% recycled aluminum

  • Yardbird which creates outdoor furniture out of recycled plastics 

  • Along with plenty more, and certainly more to come with a greater demand for recycled goods!