Downcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. Downcycling aims to prevent wasting potentially useful materials, reduce consumption of fresh raw materials, energy usage, air pollution and water pollution. Its goals are also lowering greenhouse gas emissions (though re-use of tainted toxic chemicals for other purposes can have the opposite effect) as compared to virgin production. A clear example of downcycling is plastic recycling, which turns the material into lower grade plastics.
The term downcycling
was used by Reiner Pilz in an interview by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994.
We talked about the impending EU Demolition Waste Streams directive. "Recycling, he said, "I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling where old products are given more value not less." He despairs of the German situation and recalls the supply of a large quantity of reclaimed woodblock from an English supplier for a contract in Nuremberg while just down the road a load of similar blocks was scrapped. In the road outside his premises, was the result of the Germans' demolition waste recycling. It was a pinky looking aggregate with pieces of handmade brick, old tiles and discernible parts of useful old items mixed with crushed concrete. Is this the future for Europe?
The term downcycling was also used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
As we have noted, most recycling is actually downcycling; it reduces the quality of a material over time. When plastics other than those found in soda and water bottles are recycled, they are mixed with different plastics to produce a hybrid of lower quality, which is then molded into something amorphous and cheap, such as a park bench or a speed bump... Aluminum is another valuable but constantly downcycled material. The typical soda can consists of two kinds of aluminum: the walls are composed of aluminum, manganese alloy with some magnesium, plus coatings and paint, while the harder top is aluminum magnesium alloy. In conventional recycling these materials are melted together, resulting in a weaker—and less useful—product.
While downcycling is criticized for reducing the value of a product, it is justified in terms of reducing the energy and CO2 emissions that would be entailed in producing products from scratch with new raw materials.
- lower reusability (in comparison with "classic" recycling)
- lower amount of iterations inside the cycle
- with each iteration of downcycling:
- quality of downcycled things deteriorates
- their value diminishes
- requirements, standards or level of expectations (demanded by appropriate respective norms) back off
- after the last iteration the product has been downcycled to the par of general waste