Recycling vs. upcycling: What is the difference?

When we talk about circularity as a framework for sustainability there are several aspects to consider, from the sourcing of raw materials to the end of a product's useful life. At Infinit denim we employ practices such as recycling and upcycling to mitigate our impact on the environment and support the transition to more sustainable business models. Both terms revolve around the idea that an item should exist and be in circulation for a long period of time, extending its useful life.

Recycling and upcycling are the pillars of our collections at Infinit denim. Despite having the same purpose, they are very different practices that differ both in scope and in the environmental impact of the processes used.

ucycled infinit denim
Upcycled jacket

What is recycling?

Recycling values the resources that make up our products. It involves treating materials that after being melted, crushed, liquefied, etc. have been reduced to their raw material to be reused in the same product or for new applications.

It is an industrial process that, due to the infrastructure required, emits a lot of emissions and reinforces the unfortunate social norm that an item can be disposable after a single use. Recycling is therefore more a way of mitigating the environmental impact of waste than a way of eliminating it.

Traditionally textiles and fabrics have not been easy to recycle. Today, as with paper and plastic, recycled material must be blended with virgin fibres to create new yarn.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling finds value in the current state of the object in order to convert it into a new product or give it a new function. Unlike recycling, the aim is not simply to reuse waste materials, but to reuse them in a way that enhances their intrinsic value or quality.

It is seen as a creative process where the original form is often preserved, making the object recognisable and giving it a story. At present, the upcycling process is not scalable for industrialisation which makes its impact on the environment less than that of recycling. Relatively little energy is consumed as the processes involved generally only include cleaning and assembly/disassembly of parts.

Spinning yarn Infinit Denim

Main differences between recycling and upcycling

Recycling

  • Recycling can be done on a large scale as there is an established infrastructure to collect, break down and reuse recycled materials.
  • Much of the recycling process can be automated.
  • Recycling involves the destruction of waste to create something new.

Upcycling

  • Upcycling is still at an underdeveloped stage and has a long way to go in terms of supply chain, logistics and wholesale manufacturing.
  • It is difficult to automate because new products are often unique.
  • Upcycling removes waste and creates something new from it in its current state.

Despite the differences between recycling and upcycling, what these concepts together call for is to raise awareness in consumer choices and responsibility around what we do with our items after they have fulfilled their first life cycle.

Infinit denim blue thread.

Text by: Roberta Lebed.

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