How does upcycling compare with recycling to help cut carbon footprint?

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Algerian artist Djamila Bekkour uses upcycled coffee capsules to create ornamental pieces inside her workshop in Algiers, Algeria July 13, 2021. Picture taken July 13, 2021. REUTERS/Abdelaziz Boumzar
Algerian artist Djamila Bekkour uses upcycled coffee capsules to create ornamental pieces inside her workshop in Algiers, Algeria on 13 July, 2021. (PHOTO: Reuters)

This article is part of the Yahoo series ‘Sustainability: Fact/Myth’

You have heard of recycling, but how about its lesser-known counterpart upcycling?

Recycling involves breaking down of waste, such as plastics and paper, into its raw materials to make new items.

The other – a term first coined in 1994 – is often referred to as “creative recycling”. The concept refers to repurposing existing products and materials while maintaining all or some of their original characteristics.

In essence, upcycling involves the conversion of old items into other products, often of greater value.

For example, recycling a plastic detergent bottle and an aluminum can entails melting the items into raw materials to be made into other plastic and metal goods, respectively.

Upcycling the same bottle and can involve modifying the items into a flower pot or stationary container, respectively.

While recycling is more convenient for most end-users, upcycling helps users to think more about how to reinvent waste products. It also helps to save money since there is no need to buy certain items as they can be remade from existing materials.

More importantly, it helps reduce the carbon footprint. Imagine the global environmental impact if upcycling were to take off in many countries.

One notable example was the recent efforts by volunteers at a temple in Thailand who helped made parts of personal protective equipment by using upcycled plastic bottles amid the fight against COVID-19. Some 18 million plastic bottles were used to make fabric for personal protective equipment, which were then distributed to monks and hospital workers.

The world generates about 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least 33 per cent not managed in an environmentally safe manner, according to the World Bank.

Globally, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74kg, with a wide range of between 0.11kg and 4.54kg. While high-income countries account for 16 per cent of the world’s population, they generate about 34 per cent, or 683 million tonnes, of the world’s waste, the World Bank said.

(SOURCE: World Bank)
(SOURCE: World Bank)

Some of the world’s best “recyclers” include Germany, which tops the list, as well as South Korea, Austria, Belgium, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland, according to OECD data.

However, less than 20 per cent of global waste is recycled each year, with huge quantities still sent to landfill sites, according to Statista.

Global waste is expected to grow 70 per cent to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050, more than the double population growth over the same period, a report issued in 2018 by the World Bank showed.

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