Why We Can’t Ignore Downcycling any Longer

Many of us have heard of “upcycling“—the practice of taking junk or old items like furniture and hopefully adding value, either monetarily or in terms of their personal worth or usefulness—but what about “downcycling”?

Downcycling is actually happening all the time, and if we recycle, we are almost certainly already contributing to it. In its broadest terms, it is the process of taking a discarded item and turning into something—often several items—of lower value that can be used for a different purpose.

We’re probably most familiar with downcycling when it comes to household plastics. These don’t biodegrade and take hundreds if not thousands of years to break up.

We’re Not Recycling, We’re Downcycling

It’s critical we recycle as much as we possibly can, but there’s a catch with recycling. It’s difficult, and with things like plastics virtually impossible, to take an item and recycle it in such a way that it retains its original quality. Glass and some metal products are the exception but, unfortunately, they are relatively minor in terms of items we’d find (and recycle) in our home.

The leader when it comes to downcycling, of course, is plastics. Much of the household plastics waste that we send to recycling (and actually makes it to recycling plants) gets downcycled.

For example, we can’t recycle plastic containers into like-for-like products, as they lose some of the qualities they had when they were so-called “virgin plastics”. Such plastics still have some properties that make them useful though. They can be suitable for reprocessing into doormats or other composite plastics by melting them down, mixing them with other plastics and then molding them. It is possible to make a like-for-like product by introducing a small amount of virgin plastics, but such a process often isn’t desirable for general disposable household items. Usually, the plastics we use will go into plastic items like certain car parts, park benches, drainage pipes and so on.

The same is true for paper. Quality writing paper, once used, usually can’t be reused to make more of the same quality writing paper. Recycling centers might bleach and reprocess it for photocopy paper which isn’t quite the same quality but is still useful. In turn, photocopy paper might be downcycled into packing materials, and so on until it’s no longer recyclable at all.

Our Downcycling Problem

The idea of this downcycling process is that it extends the life of our plastics, paper, and aluminium (among other vital textiles and materials), so we uses fewer virgin materials and thus fewer resources overall. However, there are problems with downcycling, and they go hand-in-hand with many of our current systems of recycling: there is a point of no return.

When we downcycle plastics, they have to be broken down and amalgamated with other plastics. We then get a new product. Over time though, this breaking down and reforming process takes its toll on the materials.

There comes a point when the plastics are no longer able to be broken down and put back together in ways that are economically viable or even practical. They have effectively been stripped of their strength and therefore their usefulness. At this point, those plastics have only a couple of places left to go: the landfill or the incinerator.

Some critics of downcycling and, by extension, recycling say that this means the entire endeavor is pointless. That is clearly not true. By extending the life of our existing resources we prevent new resources having to be used, thus cutting waste.

However, what is true is that even with our best intentions and even assuming everyone recycled as much as they could and that our city and government officials handled recycling operations perfectly (all of which are big asks we are currently nowhere near achieving), recycling is not a closed loop. At some point, we are still adding to landfills.

So what’s the solution?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy to this issue, but there are a couple of things that we can keep in mind if we want to try to stop the waste spiral.

These can include things like avoiding single-use plastics where possible and opting for reusable items if you can, but that’s on a micro-level. If we’re absolutely honest, our day-to-day habits, while meaningful on a personal level, don’t change the big picture.

What we need to do is to stop accepting the greenwashing lie that recycling plastics is actually environmentally friendly. It isn’t.

True, it’s better than using virgin plastics (or other virgin materials) but it is not a solution. Instead, if we treat recycling like a last resort, we re-frame the issue and add new urgency to demanding that our governments and our manufacturers end their wasteful obsession with plastics.

Downcycling is a useful tool for mitigating our unavoidable use of materials that don’t biodegrade, and it’s critical we understand just how important this is as a means of extending the usefulness of our materials. However, if we’re to truly beat our waste management problems, then cutting down on textiles and plastic waste, upcycling and finding alternative packing and shipping materials will be critical.

Lastly, while it won’t end our broader waste management problems, we can employ a sort of downcycling in our own homes. For example, we can find new uses for things like bottle caps that many recycling plants won’t take. Care2 has a handy guide on how to start here!

Take Action

Care2 is calling on Kroger—the world’s largest grocery store chain—to open a plastic-free aisle in all of their stores. This would not only reduce waste, but it would encourage companies to think of other, more environmentally sound ways to package their foods. Join over 119,000 Care2 members and sign and share the petition!

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.


Photo credit: Getty Images.


Peggy B
Peggy B5 months ago


Richard B
Past Member 6 months ago

Thank you

Lindsay K
Lindsay Kemp6 months ago

Many thanks for sharing. We all need to get on board with this, and quickly! Petition signed.

Elle B
Elle B6 months ago

Thank-you. Very important.

Nita L
Nita L6 months ago

Thank you.

Sophie A
Past Member 6 months ago

thanks for sharing

Emma L
Past Member 6 months ago

Thank you

Chad A
Chad A6 months ago


Daniel v
Daniel v6 months ago

all comes down to wall street and investors ,saving pennies left and right. I grew up in Europe everything was in glass beer, milk soda's yogurt and so on .all went back to the brewery milk processing plant and so on.so there was no need for recycling. People had there own shopping bags also this was up in the 1980's here in the USA up to the 1970's .so company's and investors make a little more money true this throw away society, all of this at the expense of the now very fragile planet we have to live on. Let us all enjoy these last decades, if that !we have left

Barbara S
Barbara S6 months ago