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Recycle or Upcycle- What's the Difference?

Until recently I didn't really know what it meant when you upcycle something. I had seen and heard the word a few times, here and there, but never really took the time to look it up. I am glad I did. In some of my crafting hubs I encourage people to reuse things like paper and glass jars, etc.. but I always refer to it as recycling- which is apparently incorrect now days though still we know what people mean when they say recycling in reference to reusing and repurposing things. It comes down to personal preference as to what you want to call it but there is a bit of a difference between the two. So what exactly is upcycling and what is the difference between that and recycling?

I have always loved to reuse/repurpose things that people would normally throw away or put in the recycle bin- stuff like paperboard, tin cans, aluminum cans, glass jars etc.. This is exactly what upcycling is. You are taking something that usually would be considered trash/disposable or even recyclable and making it into something useful or better. You are improving it in it's original form (without any downgrading process) and making it into something more valuable. Upcycling is a fairly recent trend and with the growing interest in keeping our environment green and clean, it is sure to keep gaining in popularity.

As far as recycling, when you recycle a product it is broken down through a process in which a lot of times it is made into something completely different than what it started out as. Like with plastics, I was surprised to learn just how many things are made just from recycled plastic. What these plastics are made into depends on what kind of resin they are made from. Some of the things made from recycled plastics are:

  • fibers for sleeping bags
  • flower pots
  • toys
  • plastic recycle bins
  • carpet
  • milk jugs
  • pipes
  • plastic lumber

and much, much more!


Recycling is and will always be a great thing to do but upcycling is actually even more beneficial because you are saving the energy normally used in the recycling process and even in recycling, there is a by-product of waste during the break down of these products. All in all they both benefit our environment and the end result is the same. They keep things from piling up in the landfills and that's always a good thing. Here are some interesting facts about recycling:

  • Speaking of landfills, did you know that the average time it takes for plastic bottles to decompose is 700 years? Go to to read about this and other interesting facts about recycling.
  • According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, recycling 1 ton of paper saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 2 barrels of oil, and 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity
  • Did you know you can recycle batteries? According to the EPA, batteries contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel, which can contaminate the environment when batteries are improperly disposed of.
  • At Battery Solutions you can purchase a iRecycle Kit to safely dispose all battery types.
  • Also, completely free of charge, you can recycle rechargeable batteries and old cell phones at call2recycle. They are the only free rechargeable and cell phone battery program in North America.
  • In case you are interested in getting into recycling, you can go to to find a recycling center in your area.

Now back to Upcycling! Look at these great items!


Fused Plastic Bag

To me it is kind of like an extreme makeover for what is usually perceived as junk or trash :0) I would like to share some impressive examples of upcycling with you.

Look at this awesome bag found at Etsy Labs Archive. This was made from fusing plastic bags together with an iron-isn't this great? Click on the link for the free tutorial.

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Bottle Cap Art

Look at this awesome work of art at Artistic Recycling made completely from bottle caps!


Glass Bottles into Drinking Glasses

How about these drinking glasses that were made from glass bottles. See these and some other photos of DIY drinking glasses out of glass bottles at Ali Does It Herself. There is even a link to a tutorial on how she made them!


Toothbrush Handle Bracelet

Did you know you can upcycle your old toothbrushes into these cute bracelets? Find this tutorial along with other awesome upcycled accessory tutorials at YourKloset Blogazine.

Before I end this hub, I want to say that I do care about the environment but so far that hasn't been my primary reason for reusing and repurposing things. I believe strongly in working with what I have... Believe me, there are a lot of things I would love to purchase to be able to use and work with but I figure why not use things that I always have access to. I can say, however, that after doing a bit of research and learning a few more things about recycling and about the new trend of upcycling, I sure am glad that I try to make the most of what is available to me (and all of us) in pretty much unlimited supply. It's definitely made me more aware of what we are doing to our earth- and it is kinda scary.

I encourage everyone to at least give upcycling a try.. it's lots of fun to take something like a used can or glass bottle and decorate it into something really cute and usable. It's amazing how much out there you can truly make into something new instead of tossing it into the trash. All it takes is a little bit of imagination and creativity :0)

Maybe you are not interested in upcycling as a hobby for yourself but you like the idea and would like to contribute in some way. If you live in the St. Louis Missouri area you are in luck! You can go to The Upcycle Exchange to see a "wish list" for all the materials you can donate for artists and crafters and they will transform your donations into something awesome and brand new. They list the drop off locations on the website. In return for your donations, you will get big discounts on the finished handmade merchandise and even some free stuff too :0)


Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on January 14, 2013:

RTalloni- Thank you for dropping by! I still just call everything "recycled" though I guess "upcycled" is the correct term. I don't fret about it. I just think it's the neatest thing in the world to take something that is bound for the trash or recycle bin and make it into something useful. Glad you enjoyed the hub and thanks for linking up to your making bags hub :)

RTalloni on January 14, 2013:

The lines for definitions of the terms related to being good stewards of the earth can be a little blurry but it is good to think them through and give clarity to the important topic. Thanks for this look at recycling and upcycling! Linking this hub to mine on making bags.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on May 10, 2012:

Melovy- Thanks for dropping by :) I bet the mats your grandfather made from old fish nets looked really neat. I would like to get a glass cutter and make some of those drinking glasses from wine bottles sometime :)

Yvonne Spence from UK on May 10, 2012:

I’m a bit like you were- didn’t know exactly what upcycling is but I’ve been doing it for years. When my daughter was one, one of her favourite ‘toys’ was a foam tray thing that a pack of 4 avocados came in. Years and years ago my grandfather used to unravel old fishing nets he found when beach combing and then he knitted them into mats.

Thanks for an interesting and useful hub.

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on March 26, 2012:

Oh your welcome. Just starting out at the hub.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on March 26, 2012:

Thanks for dropping by.. I like the metal art, very cool!

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on March 26, 2012:

Yes it is a new word of an old idea. Consider junk art. It has been around for decades. It is upcycling. Meaning that something discarded get a higher status of existence. Nothing new under the sun. If you want to see nuts and bolts upcycled, check out

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on March 17, 2012:

Hi Vinaya- I think the term 'upcycle' is relatively new. It is a neat subject though and I learned a whole lot when I was researching to write this hub. I was amazed at the different things people were making with glass bottles and things like that. Thank you so much for stopping by :)

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on March 17, 2012:

I also admit, I did not know about upcycle until I read this hub. Thanks of enlightening the topic.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on October 05, 2011:

DeborahNeyens: Thanks so much for reading! I bet your quilt from the t-shirts turns out great.. I love reusing and re-purposing stuff... so much fun and saves money too. Whine bottles for tiki torches.. wow.. I bet they turn out great too.. I LOVE bottles.. especially some of those fancy liquor bottles! I went to a recycling place the other day and I wanted to take the whole bin full of bottles home with me :) Thank you again for reading.. Take care!

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on October 05, 2011:

Great hub! I'm always looking for ways to repurpose things. I'm saving up old t-shirts to make into a quilt this winter and I just gave my next door neighbor a bunch of wine bottles (for some reason I seem to have plenty of those lying around!) to turn into tiki torches.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on September 16, 2011:

danielleantosz: Thanks so much for reading! I love it too. It's so much fun.

danielleantosz from Florida on September 15, 2011:

I love reusing items! It saves me money on crafting supplies and keeps trash from landfills. Great article! on August 11, 2011:

Those stuff are pretty artistic! Who would think that we can create such things out of trash or used materials. Recycling or 'upcycling' will be so much fun at the same time helpful to the environment if we do the same as this.

Muj'z wifey on May 15, 2011:

i really love upcycling :)

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on April 15, 2011:

Thank you, Fluffy77! It really is awesome, all the things you can do with stuff just lying around. Thanks for reading! Take Care :)

Fluffy77 from Enterprise, OR on April 14, 2011:

Very creative and on the cheap, things you already have laying around the house. This is a wonderful recycling habit to learn and thanks for sharing, also informative and useful. Thanks.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on March 29, 2011:

AlysaLewis, Are you really,lol! Please do let me know how the boots turn out.. good luck!

AlyzaLewis from The Land of Narnia on March 29, 2011:

Will do. Right now I'm trying to make a pair of boots out of old flip flops, old jeans, plastic bags, and a pair of plastic cups. I'll let you know how it goes. lol

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on March 26, 2011:

AlyzaLewis.. Thank you for stopping by! Have fun doing your upcycled crafts.. and if you think about it I would love an update on what you made and how it turns out :0) I'm always looking for new ideas.

AlyzaLewis from The Land of Narnia on March 25, 2011:

Great Hub! I've been saving a lot of the stuff I normally throw away and I'd like to start making my own up-cycled crafts sometime.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on February 18, 2011:

Thank you, JLClose!

JLClose from OreGONE on February 17, 2011:

My family loves to recycle and upcycle. I really love the idea of fusing together plastic bags to make a cute tote. I tried crocheting plastic bags together once to make a purse. It didn't work out for me, but I know it can be done. Thanks for the cool hub!

givetome on January 31, 2011:

Nice post. You become a recycler to upcycle and keep stuff out of landfill

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 30, 2011:

Me too! It would be so great for reducing the amount that ends up in garbage dumps.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on January 30, 2011:

Thank you Peggy, I appreciate you reading! Yeah, I agree about the upcycling centers.. I sure wish I had one in my area. I would definitely contribute!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 30, 2011:

Wow! It would be great if all cities had upcyclying centers like St. Louis, Missouri. Kudos to that city and the people who first thought of it! Useful hub and voting it as such.

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on January 10, 2011:

Thanks Highvoltage.. I agree! It's amazing to see what you can do with stuff people throw away every day. Thank you for reading!

William Benner from Savannah GA. on January 09, 2011:

This is cool..turning trash into art! Great job!

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on January 08, 2011:

Thank you kashir56, I really appreciate it!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on January 08, 2011:

Hi Jamie, thanks for explaining what upcycling is i did not know much about it till i read about it here.

Great hub!!!

Jamie Brock (author) from Texas on January 07, 2011:

Thanks for reading, Simone!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on January 07, 2011:

I'm a huge fan of upcycling. Thanks so much for writing about it!

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