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The last few years have seen a major uptick in the interest and investment in sustainability across nearly every aspect of how we live. The trend has led to an increased interest in both upcycling and recycling—two distinct but effective approaches to more sustainable living and more ethical consumption. But when it comes to upcycling vs. recycling, which one is the more sustainable choice?

In this article, we’ll explore exactly what the difference is between upcycling vs. recycling. This includes how to upcycle, how to recycle, waste management services, and some tips for making sustainable choices easy in your everyday life.

Reusable grocery bag with a cell phone showing a recycling logo for the article about upcycling vs recycling.

What is Recycling?

Recycling is the process of sorting items based on the material they are made from, and then breaking them down to be made into a new product. 

This process is great for creating brand new products from old ones, giving new life to something so that it doesn’t end up in the landfill. However, it can also be a major source of emissions that do further damage to the environment, and it can be confusing for consumers as the rules of recycling vary greatly from city to city. 

In general, though, the most commonly recycled products include: 

  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Metal 

The American recycling rate has increased over the past few years to 32 percent. While most Americans who recycle do so by placing these commonly recycled items directly into their curbside recycling bin for pickup, there are actually dozens of different materials that can be recycled if you just know where and how to properly dispose of them. 

Wall Recycling’s waste management services, for instance, offer convenient recycling options throughout North Carolina. 

What is Upcycling? 

Upcycling, like recycling, is a more sustainable option than simply throwing an item into the trash and letting it wind up in a landfill. Upcycling is the act of taking an item that has come to the end of its life in one respect, and repurposing it for a new use. 

For instance, if you have an old pair of pants that are tattered at the ends or full of holes below the knee, you can upcycle them by altering them into a pair of shorts. 

Because upcycling is intrinsically creative and varies so much from project-to-project and person-to-person, it’s hard to say that any one item can be more easily upcycled. Still, there are some items that are particular favorites for repurposing:

  • Clothing 
  • Fabric 
  • Furniture
  • Food packaging  

While recycling is done at a facility with equipment that can break down the product into the raw materials, upcycling is often done at home. 

Upcycling is becoming more and more popular with younger generations of Americans, but the rate is still lower than that of recycling. One ecoredux.com article estimated that 21% of Americans upcycle clothing, boxes, and other goods.

Which is More Sustainable: Upcycling or Recycling

Both upcycling and recycling are far better options for the environment than tossing items into the trash. However, upcycling is often the more sustainable option when it is possible. 

This is because the recycling process takes more funding on a larger scale. Building a new waste recycling unit, for instance, requires funding for utility vehicles, recycling units, and chemical disposal, and staff training. 

Recycling also creates emissions that are ultimately more harmful to the environment. When those waste materials are broken down, any remaining pollutants in the original material can find their way into the new item, or be released into the air. The waste removal process itself—dumping, landfilling, and burning—can emit dangerous greenhouse gasses. 

Don’t forget that there’s a limit to the amount an item can be recycled, too: Usually around two to three times. 

Upcycling, on the other hand, is often done by individuals looking to use the existing product and either maintain or increase its value and usefulness with a bit of time and labor. While this can be a little more work-intensive, it usually doesn’t come with the same large-scale emissions costs of recycling. 

How Are Upcycling and Recycling Similar 

Though they are fairly different, upcycling and recycling share one important quality: They both require consumers to carefully consider how they are disposing of the waste they produce, and what that method means for the future of our planet. 

Whether you recycle or upcycle, you are required to be more aware of buying choices and take more responsibility for what happens to them after you are done using them. 

Why Should You Upcycle 

Say you’re not the craftiest or most creative person in the world: that’s ok! You can still find ways to upcycle that are convenient and better for your conscience. 

Upcycling Is Better for the Planet

As we mentioned above, upcycling is one of the most environmentally-responsible methods of disposal you can opt for. 

Upcycling benefits include: 

  • Keeping materials out of landfills
  • Reducing need to create new materials, saving resources
  • Supporting local businesses

Studies have shown that upcycling may be able to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 25% when compared to purchasing a new product.. 

Upcycling Is Fun

Upcycling offers a chance to unleash your creativity and custom-make a new product that fits your exact needs. You can either be practical with projects like turning old clothes into the outfit of your dreams, old cartons and cups into useful containers for odds and ends, or dingy furniture into a brand new piece; or get inventive by using old items to create sculptures. The only limit here is your imagination.  

Plus, once all is said and done, you’ll feel good knowing that you used all the resources available to you to bring new life to something that otherwise might have ended up in a landfill.

Upcycling Is Good for Business

If you own and operate your own business, upcycling can be a good business move too. One Forbes article reports that 93% of global consumers expect brands to be active in local social and environmental issues, which includes sustainable business practices. 

By encouraging upcycling with your own products or making a point to upcycle in your own store, you can send a clear message that mindfulness and sustainability are as important to you as they are to your customers. 

How to Upcycle

If you’re in the market for something specific, and you want to consider upcycling before you purchase something new, here are some tips to get you started:

Consider Your Budget

Upcycling might start with something you already own that’s fallen out of use, or it may begin with some shopping around at thrift stores and garage sales for something that might fit your vision. Keep in mind when you are budgeting to not only account for the item itself, but also the materials and amount of labor that you’ll need to put in to bring your vision to life. 

Look for Inspiration 

If you already have a vision in mind for your project, great! You’re halfway there. If, though, you’re not totally sure what it is you’re looking to create, you can find plenty of inspiration when you’re looking for it. 

Scrolling through sites like Pinterest, Instagram, and Houzz can give you more ideas than you know what to do with, and don’t require anything but an account and some time. You may also want to just take a look around your local thrift stores to see if anything jumps out at you, or flip through home decor magazines—those tend to be filled to the brim with DIY deep dives. 

Shop Around

If you’re not working with something you already own, get started shopping around for the item you want to upcycle. Some of the most commonly recommended sites and stores for cheaper and older furniture or clothing that can be upcycled include: 

  • Facebook Marketplace
  • Instagram
  • EBay 
  • Goodwill
  • Depop
  • Poshmark
  • OfferUp 

Gather Materials 

Once you have your item and an idea for how you would like the project to turn out, it’s time to gather up all the materials you might need. Check out your local craft or home improvement store, or look into renting any of the bigger tools you’re looking for. While you may not be able to rent every tool you need, you can save a ton by renting what you can. 

How to Recycle

It’s true that upcycling is often more environmentally friendly than any other method for getting rid of waste—but it isn’t the only responsible one. Recycling should still be a part of your regular routine. 

Knowing how to recycle can make the process less intimidating, but that can be difficult when recycling guidelines change so much from municipality to municipality. That’s why we’ve put together our in-depth guide to recycling in North Carolina, to make the process easier than ever. 

In general, you can recycle the following in your household curbside bin:

  • Aluminum cans
  • Newspaper
  • Office paper
  • Recyclable glass 
  • Plastic bottles

For other items, refer to the guide or to your local recycling guidelines. Wall Recycling offers many recycling drop-off and collection services for specialty items as part of our waste management services. 


If you’re looking for more sustainable ways to get rid of trash and junk, upcycling and recycling can do wonders for the environment and for your conscience. 

Upcycling lets you make something entirely new, and sometimes even turn a profit in the process. For those things that you just can’t figure out what to do with, though, recycling is the second-best sustainable choice. Household recycling can be set outside for curbside pickup, while other, bulkier or hazardous items can be dropped off or collected by recycling and junk removal companies like Wall Recycling. 

From old computers to batteries to furniture, Wall Recycling provides recycling services to residents throughout North Carolina, keeping the state—and everyone in it—clean and healthy for the long term. We even offer curbside collection for our Wilmington customers with our Wilmington trash services!

Contact us today to learn more about recycling in North Carolina!