Down-cycling Materials

By   April 11, 2014

Green TechnologyAs the world’s population continues to multiply at an incredible fast rate, the problem of waste and carbon footprints from humans becomes a larger and larger problem. The efforts of engineers, scientists, and green technologists are making have developed and progressed through various avenues such as recycling, renewable energy, regenerative design, and down-cycling. While the term up-cycling has often been use in the arts to signify using an item or product to create something new or better from waste or un-usable products, the term down-cycling is just the opposite: reusing materials to make products which are lesser.

What is Down-cycling?

The concept of down-cycling, also called downstream recycling, is different than re-cycling. While re-cycling implies making something (like a plastic bottle) into something similar (another plastic bottle) down-cycling converts useless products into useable ones which are less functional or of lesser quality. Because the components that make up most products lose value or viability when they are recycled, they often can only be made into products which are a degraded form of the original.

For instance, writing paper which is considered to be recyclable is actually not able to be made into high quality writing paper again; rather it will be turned into cardboard or something else of lesser quality. And this item will likely still end up in a landfill eventually, but the down-cycling process has extended its life rather than using up a new material to make the down-cycled item.

Benefits of Down-Cycling

Although the idea of down-cycling in green technology might sound like a negative thing because it involves degradation, it is still an excellent way to get more lives out of a valuable natural resource. Using a tree to make writing paper and then a cardboard box, that postpones its journey to a landfill. In addition, the energy needed to make down-cycled materials into products is less than the amount of energy needed to turn raw materials into something new.

For instance, if one tree is used to make the writing paper and then a different tree is used to make a cardboard box, this scenario not only uses two trees, but it uses a greater amount of energy to make the cardboard box. By down-cycling the writing paper, the cardboard box requires much less energy to make. This scenario, then, not only uses only one tree and keeps the paper out of the landfill, it also uses less precious energy to make and minimizes pollution to the air and to water.

Re-Use First

While down-cycling is a better alternative to landfills, the first step should be reusing. In the case of writing paper, don’t throw it away if it only has print on one side. Instead, use the other side for scrap paper or a bookmark before putting it in the recycle bin. The more steps taken prior to an item ending up in a landfill, the better!