What is downcycling and how does it contribute to environmental protection?

Recycling is the process of recovering secondary raw materials from waste. In recent decades, this concept has gained huge popularity, as have recycled products marked as “eco-friendly”. As a result of research and testing, new recycling technologies, such as downcycling or upcycling, have also begun to emerge. What is downcycling and how important is it in the context of environmental protection?

Published: 13-04-2022

Downcycling – what is it?

Every day, we generate tonnes of waste only part of which is reusable. One of the most famous forms of recycling in the West is downcycling. What is it? It is a method of reusing raw materials, also known as cascading. As a result of the downcycling process, waste loses certain properties – therefore, it is less valuable than the starting product.

The term “downcycling” was coined in 2002 by the authors of the publication Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things – William McDonough, an American architect, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist. In Poland, the idea of downcycling is still in its infancy, which is manifested by the scarce number of Polish-language studies concerning this issue. Only after entering in a search engine the phrase “downcycling definition” can you find the latest substantive sources and scientific studies about downcycling.

Downcycling in practice: examples

What does downcycling look like in practice? This form of recycling works particularly well for raw materials which produce toxic substances or that irreversibly lose their original properties after processing. This is true for such materials as:

  • steel scrap from motor vehicles,
  • aluminium,
  • recycled paper,
  • used plastic bags, clothes, tyres and footwear,
  • PVC products,
  • construction materials (steel elements, bricks, polystyrene, mineral wool).

If waste cannot be used to produce high-quality materials, it can be subjected to downcycling processes. Here are some practical examples:

  • waste films are used to make eco-friendly bags and bin liners,
  • steel and aluminium are used to produce tool steel,
  • paper waste can be used to produce package fillers, toilet paper, supermarket leaflets or eco-friendly packaging (for eggs or home appliances),
  • polystyrene waste is used to produce, among other things, loose-fill material for thermal insulation.

Upcycling, downcycling, recycling: what’s the difference?

The terms such as “upcycling”, “downcycling” and “recycling” should not be used interchangeably. Recycling is a very broad term that describes all activities related to the reuse of waste. The different forms of recycling include:

  • downcycling (products from downcycling have a lower value than the raw material used to produce them),
  • upcycling – this is the refining of secondary raw materials and giving them new qualities and functionalities (for example, the production of furniture from pallets, the construction of energy-saving houses from recycled materials).

Downcycling and the environmental protection

It is time to answer another very important question: what is the role of downcycling in the modern world? Undoubtedly, these are necessary measures that help us protect the environment in a number of ways:

  1. We reduce the amount of unprocessed waste and the levels of dangerous contaminants that poison the soil, air and water.
  2. We do not need to cut down trees to obtain paper for recycling (trees bring oxygen and shade, they retain water and stabilise the soil, they prevent droughts, landslides and the greenhouse effect; trees are also home to many species of beneficial birds, insects and mammals),
  3. We save energy and non-renewable resources that are needed to produce new raw materials.
  4. We protect the landscape and groundwater as less space for landfills is needed.

Reasonable waste management and reuse of raw materials as part of downcycling is no longer just a transient trend. It is a far-sighted move that will largely determine the quality of life of the generations to come.

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