Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Upcycle, repurpose, recycled - what's the difference?

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Customers frequently ask me 'what is upcycled fabric?'  When I explain to them that my upcycled bags are made from gently used, discarded clothing, I get a variety of reactions.  'Green' folks love the idea and often offer other upcycling ideas for bags.  'Not-so-green' folks think it is weird.   I realize that upcycling, repurposing, or even recycling is not for everyone, but it certainly is for me and I enjoy giving thrift store finds a new purpose.  I have done some research on these different terms in order to clarify for myself and my prospective customers. 

Here's what I came up with:

Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.  (wikipedia definition)

Repurpose:  To take what may be otherwise a waste item and use it for another
purpose - e.g a coffee jar becomes a jar for keeping nails
green terminology (courtesy of allgreencontractors)


To take a thing or a material and use it for a purpose not originally intended. By their very nature, re-purposed objects often have a lot of inherent character, flair, and style.

Artisans have re-purposed old doors to make tables.  (

Recycling:   Disassembly of product components so that they can be the raw
material for future manufacturing processes.  

So, what do these definitions tell us?  We all have lived with the term recycle for many years.  In fact, most of us live in areas that demand us to recycle what was garbage years ago; glass, newspaper, plastic bottles etc.  The horror of thinking of all those items I tossed into the trash for so long.  Now, between composting and recycling, we generate very little trash here.  Recycling is here to stay, as it should be.

In my research, I learned that I have been using the terms Upcycle and Repurpose interchangably, but they are not the same thing.   Upcycling is making a completely different (and sometimes) better product from an item that no longer has value in its present state.  Repurposing is using an item in its present state for a different purpose - either as is or jazzed up a bit.  So, when I take thrift store clothes, wash them and cut them into usable pieces of fabric to make bags - it is upcycled!   When I use a an x-acto knife as a seam ripper - it is repurposed!

Let me know what you upcycle or repurpose. 


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