To many, the concepts of upcycling and downcycling might sound vaguely similar. After all, they both involve recycling efforts.
But in the construction industry – which generates an estimated third of waste in the European Union – the difference between the two is monumental.
By understanding the key distinction between materials that can be upcycled and downcycled, builders can make more sustainable choices about the materials they opt for in new constructions and renovations alike.
And by planning for the future by designing for disassembly right from the start, they can take the appropriate measures to avoid contamination and consequently, increase the possibilities for reuse and recycling.
Continue reading to learn more about the difference between upcycling and downcycling, discover materials that can viably be recycled and upcycled, and explore examples of upcycling in the construction industry.
Upcycling vs. Downcycling
Recycling is an umbrella term for various types of product and material waste conversion. But not all recycling forms and processes are equal.
Upcycling and downcycling have different end results:
Upcycling: A form of recycling that repurposes waste, product, or materials into a substance of higher value than the original. Upcycling does not typically require resource-intensive technologies for separating, crushing, and processing.
Downcycling: A form of recycling that repurposes materials into a substance of lower value than the original. Downcycling often involves using energy, resources, and virgin materials to create new products.
Unfortunately, not all materials can be upcycled. Materials such as concrete and plastic often have limited recycling options and are difficult to truly upcycle because even when recycling options exist, the process tends to downgrade the material quality and functionality in some capacity.
Composite materials such as fibre-reinforced plastics are even more challenging to recycle, much less upcycle, because of their heterogeneity and components.