The DL – What is ‘Downcycling’?

September 3, 2019

By now, we are all participating in using our blue carts to better the planet. Your recyclables are taken to a sorting facility where they are then shipped off to be made into new products and serve a new purpose. When products are melted down and re-recycled over and over they undergo a process called “Downcycling”. So what is it and why does it matter?

Downcycling is a term used in the recycling industry when the quality and strength of a product is reduced when making plastics, paper, and cardboard into new, marketable products. The more times you recycle something, the weaker the bonds become reducing the overall quality of the product.

While some items like household recyclable aluminum foil can repeatedly be reused, other recyclables will slowly breakdown each time they undergo the recycling process. This is most prominent when re-recycling plastics. The number on the bottom of your plastic recyclable containers is its resin identification code. This code will determine the type of plastic and give you a vague idea of how many times it can be recycled before it’s practically waste. For example, a plastic #1 PET pop bottle, on average, can be recycled 7 to 9 times before it must be discarded. During this re-recycling process, your bottle will likely be turned into a lower-quality plastic product like a fruit clamshell or fleece sweater after it has been processed by a manufacturer.

While the quality of the plastic is less than it was originally, it is important to recycle because it helps to lessen the need to use virgin, raw materials for new products and decreases environmental degradation of our landscapes during mining processes. If we really think about it though, all recycling is downcycling because materials cannot last forever.

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