Definitions: Recycling and more

Aug 23, 2022

Last Updated: Dec 12, 2022

People often use the word RECYCLING to mean a whole bunch of different things - reusing, repurposing, upcycling,… and sometimes actually recycling! 

What do they all mean? Here's some vocabulary for you…


Recycling is the reclamation of materials in such a manner that they can be used to displace the primary or raw materials they were produced from. 

Recycling results in reduced demand for new material because the recycled material can be used instead. This is typically a scalable way to address waste meaning it can be done for large quantities of waste material typically by municipalities.



Downcycling is a particular kind of recycling. It is when something is recycled into a material that is of lower quality than the original. This is common with plastics which tends to get weaker when recycled. If recycled plastic bottles don't get turned into new bottles but, say, fleece carpet material then this is downcycling. 


Repeatedly using an item without significant alteration of the original (eg jars can be re-used - maybe you want to clean it and remove the label but you are not doing any major modifications). 

This is usually an individual effort except for some deposit systems and bottle re-use programs. Locally Asia Pacific Breweries operates a bottle reuse system for some of its beer products. Hurrah! 


Repurpose is a kind of reuse. It means using an item in a way not originally intended but without significant alteration. This is usually not scalable ie it is typically done on a project basis. Eg using an old food tin as a pencil holder. There is a limit to how many tins can be used in this way! 



Turning a discarded product into something useful / of higher quality. This is similar to repurposing except you have to invest time and materials into changing the original.

Crafting with waste materials can be included in this. Note that this is rarely scalable - meaning it is usually done on a one-off basis and is not an effective solution for waste reduction because it is time consuming and there is little demand for the end product. 

Most upcycling requires the use of new materials as part of the project (paints, glues, some new parts, etc). Craft projects are generally not effective at waste reduction though they can sometimes be used to good effect as an artistic statement about waste. 

In other words: waste crafting can be fun but it won't solve the world's waste problems!


Incineration is not recycling!

Note: Incineration is sometimes referred to in the media as "recycling" or “thermal recycling.” You may hear "trash is recycled into energy" "Swedes recycle nearly 100 per cent of their household waste". This is NOT recycling - it destroys the material, it does not recover it which is an essential part of recycling.

Zero Waste: is a philosophy with the goal to minimise waste that ends up in incinerators or landfills. It is a holistic pursuit that attempts to be systematic and scalable aiming for long term permanent solutions.

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