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What is the definition of upcycle (upcycling)?


verb [intransitive/transitive]

to reuse an object or materials to create a product of higher value or
 quality than the original object or materials




noun [uncountable]


noun [countable]

Earrings which in a former life opened a can of Coke, wooden shelves on which a young skateboarder used to ride, a vinyl clock which once rotated on a turntable and produced a tuneful noise … The connection between all these innovative products is the idea of taking something old and looking at it in a new way, deciding how its shape and form might suit another purpose. They are are all examples of a new take on reusability known as upcycling.

Patron Bottle Mood Therapy Bottle Light w/Controller
“an upcycled product is generally of higher value than the materials used to create it – metal ring pulls or can tops become jewelry, low-value coins become cuff-links, even consumed liquor bottles can become unique and mesmerizing pieces of art”

To upcycle something is to take a used object and adapt it in an innovative way to a new function. Unlike recycling, which usually involves breaking down the material an object is made from, before it is made into something else (thereby using more energy), upcycling involves using something in a new way without doing anything to reprocess the material it’s made from. As well as being more energy efficient, another major benefit of upcycling is that it makes it possible to reuse items made of materials which couldn’t be dealt with by conventional recycling methods. When something is upcycled, nothing, or very little, is discarded, with every component part or material having a potential use.

An upcycled product is generally of higher value than the materials or objects used to create it – hence examples like metal ring pulls or can tops becoming jewelry items such as brooches or earrings, low-value coins becoming cuff-links, and so on. If you’d like to see some other examples of upcycled products, check out the website of upcycling enterprise TerraCycle, which takes waste items like sweet wrappers, drinks cartons and cosmetics tubes, and turns them into bags, photo frames, kites, and much more.

Background – upcycle

There is some evidence for use of the word upcycle as far back as 1994, but the term was first brought into the spotlight by US architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart in a 2002 book entitled Cradle to Cradle:  Remaking the Way We Make Things. In the book, McDonogh and Braungart use upcycle to describe the process of taking an object which is essentially a piece of waste and moving it ‘up’ the consumer goods chain (hence the word’s use of up in place of re-). Upcycling stands in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as downcycling – the process of converting waste materials or unwanted products into new materials or products of lesser quality.

Captain Morgan Multi-Colored Mood Therapy Bottle Light
Captain Morgan Multi-Colored Mood Therapy Bottle Light

Upcycled Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Mood Therapy Bottle Light with Multi-Colored LED’s

Upcycle follows the pattern of verb recycle and has related forms upcycled, upcycling and upcycler. Though the term upcycle has yet to enter a

mainstream dictionary, the concept is becoming increasingly established, and a popular offshoot is what is now sometimes described as trashion, art and fashion items made from used or discarded objects (a blend of trash and fashion).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words