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The Harm With Recycling – Why You Need To Upcycle

The Harm With Recycling – Why You Need To Upcycle


By Amanda Hof

Recycling can be seriously confusing, and it’s easy to make a mistake. I like to think of myself as an eco-friendly consumer, who always tries to help the environment. However, recycling is a totally different ball game.

When a letter arrived from the city’s recycling complex one day, I was completely unaware of my missteps. Are they sending a letter to thank me for all of my hard work? As I tore open the envelope, a feeling of shame overcame me. Strike one, I recycled the wrong item. Three strikes and you’re out. 

As I learn from my embarrassing gaffe, I have to question: is recycling really making a difference? Am I doing enough to help the environment? And why is it all so hard? 

As it turns out, there’s an even better way you can increase your impact on the environment called upcycling.

What is Upcycling?


You learned it in school: reduce, reuse, and recycle. It’s ingrained in your brain and you’re told it’s necessary to help the environment. It’s okay if you purchase plastic, there’s no way to avoid it. And when you’re finished, just toss it in the recycling bin. Easy!

As an environmentally friendly consumer, you try to do all that you can to help the planet. You care about animals, ecosystems, and the world for future generations. Recycling is perceived as one of the “greenest” acts you can do. Or is it?

Plastic use is a problem throughout the world. Only about 9% of the 350 trillion tons of plastic the world manufactures a year is recycled. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that not all plastics can be recycled. And this goes for other “recyclable” materials as well. 

There are some things that just aren’t accepted to recycling centers: egg cartons, cardboard milk containers, plastic bags, light bulbs… it’s easy to make a mistake and assume that something is recyclable. What’s accepted varies from one facility to another. 

However, your science teacher left out an important concept, one that overpowers recycling. You may have heard of it before: upcycling. Upcycling is recycling’s sibling, the one who is better at everything. It’s time for recycling to take a back seat, and upcycling to step into the limelight.

Upcycling is reusing materials and creating a new product of perceived greater value. It’s taking waste from products and transforming it into something new and better than it was before.


The Effect of Upcycling

The truth is, upcycling can have a profound effect on the environment that recycling just doesn’t have. Recycling is a wonderful start for anyone trying to become more eco-friendly. However, consumers may purchase products based on a false assumption that they can be recycled.

Unfortunately, not everything can be recycled. Most consumers don’t realize that recycling can cause serious harm, rather than good. Recycling is not enough. If you truly want to make a difference in the world, you need to consider upcycling. 

Why Upcycle?

The effects of upcycling are inspiring. When consumers upcycle products such as boxes or other materials, it reduces the need to produce other goods. Production is a large contributor to the draining of natural resources. 

With upcycling, old materials aren’t going to waste. Consider for a moment the curtains in the movie The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews’ character saw that they were going to be trashed and she transformed them into beautiful play clothes. Any old fabric can be given new life!


Not only are you transforming something old into something extraordinary, but consider the cost savings. If you take your old college t-shirts and run them under a sewing machine, you’ll have a new blanket with sentimental value. 

Statistics show that 21% of American consumers upcycle products. That’s a great start, but remember, that means more material than not is either recycled or ends up in a landfill. Even if it goes to a recycling center, that’s no guarantee it will be transformed and reused.

Is Upcycling Better for the Environment than Recycling?

Recycling or upcycling – which is better when it comes to the environment? For a consumer who has limited knowledge about conservation and “green” practices, recycling may be the right answer. Just making the decision to put materials in the recycling bin instead of the trash is an accomplishment.

But you may be ready to take your environmentally-friendly practices to the next level. Consider the pros and cons to upcycling and recycling, and you’ll see which is the ultimate winner in the fight to save the turtles. 

Upcycling vs Recycling

There are a few pros and cons to consider when comparing recycling and upcycling.

Recycling Pros:

  • It takes little effort if you have a recycling service
  • There are a variety of items that can be recycled from your home
  • It limits waste entering our landfills
  • Recycling leads to more jobs

Recycling Cons:

  • It uses energy
  • Recycling may lead to pollution or contamination entering the environment
  • There’s a limit to recycling plastic materials…around two times is the max

Upcycling Pros:

  • Upcycling creates less waste
  • Minimal use of energy and natural resources
  • Doesn’t contribute to environmental pollution
  • It unleashes your creative side
  • It reduces manufacturing costs

Upcycling Cons:

  • You must truly enjoy what you create to gain satisfaction from the project
  • It takes time to create something new

As you can see, the pros outweigh the cons with upcycling. And when you consider purchasing from companies that upcycle, you know you’ll be receiving a great product!

Recycling isn’t enough

The truth of the matter is that recycling isn’t perfect. We tend to have idealistic views when we think of recycling our materials. Did you know that 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled? And plastic packaging drives the growth of plastic consumption.

Much of plastic packaging can’t be recycled, so where does it end up? You guessed it – it piles in landfills, sinks into the ocean, and pollutes our waterways. 

When you’re facing the truth, that it isn’t the best option, you may start to feel discouraged. But don’t despair! There are so many benefits for you, a consumer, to upcycle. Not only can you breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you did something that actually makes a difference. 

You can also feel proud of owning a unique product or item that literally no one else in the world owns! If you make it yourself, you can flex your creative muscles while you develop a one-of-a-kind piece that won’t end up in a landfill. You can feel satisfaction, knowing that you are helping the world.

How to Upcycle 

When you first consider upcycling, you may imagine some…unique crafts. Picture a CD wind chime. The sunlight glitters off of the back of the CDs as they sway in the breeze, but its splendor may not present the best on your front porch. 

You also may think of projects that your child does in elementary school. You send in random boxes and plastic jugs from your house, and your kid comes home with an abstract sculpture that resembles what’s in your dumpster. While cute for a five-year-old, it’s not ideal home decor.

The good news is you don’t have to be an artist to upcycle and make it look presentable. It can even look great, and save you money! Here are a few ideas to get you started. 

Upcycling Ideas –Get Creative!

Upcycling is not just taking an old pair of jeans, ripping them apart at the seams, and sewing them into a long skirt. There are so many ways to reuse materials that you have and turn them into something amazing that you’ll use countless times. 

For example: that old mason jar used to hold jam. Once you clean it out and add a little paint, it becomes an adorable pencil cup or even soap dispenser. A wine bottle can be fashioned into a bird feeder when flipped upside down. Plastic bottles can be turned into piggy banks or planters. 

If you’re looking for ideas, a simple internet search leads to hundreds of adorable crafts. Take this example of adorable holiday ornaments! There are thousands of ways to take your clothes, recyclables, and even non-recyclables and turn them into something useful. 

How Ocean Blue Project is Upcycling

Machine used to remove microplastics from sandy beaches

Ocean Blue Project is upcycling and stocking up on microplastics we collect from beaches. These tiny plastic fragments are like gold because the plastic has already been manufactured and simply needs to be processed and put into new products. 

The grassroots nonprofit organization has already worked with PG&E and Terracycle to turn recovered ocean plastics into Head & Shoulders shampoo bottles. Now, the org has a goal to keep the plastics in the United States, avoiding the process of having to ship overseas, and turn the plastic gold into long lasting products instead of single use ones that will only have to be cleaned up again. 

Ocean Blue Project is now open to partnerships and manufacturers to make upcycling ocean plastics a reality. Do you know of a company or products that you would like to see upcycling with ocean plastics? Pass on Ocean Blue’s upcoming Blue Ocean Economy podcast to do your part.

How You Can Make a Difference  


By reading this article today, I know you’re the type of person who truly cares about our world. You want to help the environment and know that you’re making a difference. Sometimes it can feel difficult to know if what you’re doing is actually helping

With your focus on upcycling, you can feel confident that you’re making a positive impact. You can see for yourself when you transform an item or purchase an upcycled product, the waste you’re eliminating from entering our landfills. Each and every time, it makes a difference. 

Limit your plastic consumption and upcycle whenever possible. By taking these two simple steps, you’re making the world a better place.

The next time you’re at the store considering what to purchase, pay attention to the packaging. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the packaging recyclable? And if not, is it something you can reuse?

Like what you are reading here today? Maybe your friends would too! Please share this post with them so more people can learn about upcycling. Create a beach cleanup in your neighborhood or favorite beach and help Ocean Blue Project meet our 1 million pound goal. 

Author Bio: Amanda Hof is an educator and copywriter from Ohio. She enjoys exercise, reading, and considers herself to be a lifelong learner.