Can Downcycling Save Us? No… Here’s Why

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Did you know that recycling doesn’t necessarily mean that a plastic bottle will be made into a new plastic bottle?
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That’s not the only way for materials to be repurposed for another use. In fact, there are several different options for our used valuable materials, ensuring that they are not tossed into a dump, but instead used for something else.  

Plastic containers can be downcycled into string or other materials

Downcycling is a way to reuse materials, diverting them from landfills or leaking into our environment, while creating a new product1; however, this merely delays the materials from ending up in landfills as they are not typically recycled again after the downcycling process. 

So isn’t downcycling the same thing as recycling? Well no, not exactly. 

The process of downcycling, also known as open-loop recycling, is where materials are converted into something of lesser value than the original product; for example, glass can be ground down into sand for construction, or scraps of fabrics melted down to make yarn2. In these instances, the materials are still being used to create something new, but this product is highly unlikely to be recycled again after being downcycled. Making this a temporary solution to a long-term problem. 

Closed-loop recycling is a sustainable system, meaning that materials are recycled and re-manufactured into products of equal or similar value. In other words, the materials are able to retain their value and come back to life as a new product, avoiding landfills. 

Why Does Downcycling Exist?

Some materials inherently lose value from recycling over time, eventually rendering them no longer recyclable and thus unusable. Downcycling operates as a way to continue to use those materials before they reach the point where they are no longer viable as a resource. This is an attempt to get more use out of these materials before they are inevitably sent to landfills. 

Plastics are a great example of this, with each time that plastics are recycled, they lose a part of their intrinsic properties. Eventually, those plastic materials are no longer able to be recycled because they simply are too degraded and useless for creating a product of similar value.

Instead of continually closed-loop recycling these materials until they are no longer viable, they can instead be downcycled into something useful, such as carpet fiber, doormats, turf for a new playground, or even car parts2/3. This ensures that these valuable materials are able to be given a single new purpose rather than ending up as microplastics in our oceans. 

Downcycled plastics can then be manufactured into carpet fiber

In that case, how much of our valuable materials are being recycled in the first place? 

With only a mere 9% of all plastic waste being successfully recycled, it’s easy to see the need for a drastic change. According to a report done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2013, only 14% of global plastic packaging was collected for recycling that year, and of that percentage, 8% was downcycled and 4% was lost altogether1

That’s a total of 12%, of the 14% collected, losing value or ending up in landfills, leaving only 2% being successfully closed-loop recycled into a product of equal or similar value1. Downcycling has its purpose, but it is absolutely not a replacement for a closed-loop recycling system, and it pulls us further from a truly circular economy. 

Those numbers are terrifying, meaning that we are continually producing virgin materials with only a 2% closed-loop recycling rate globally! Virgin materials are also responsible for high CO2 emissions due to the mining and extraction of those new resources.

Downcycling has its purpose in extending the life of materials that can no longer be closed-loop recycled. However, it should be used in a complimentary manner to a closed-loop recycling system rather than as a replacement, this way it supports rather than detracts from the circular economy.

Despite its inherent problems, downcycling offers another avenue for materials to be utilized before they degrade too far for further use. 

Can Downcycling Save Us? No… Here’s Why

Materials that are downcycled still end up as waste in landfills over time

One of the alleged benefits of downcycling is offsetting the amount of materials sitting in landfills, suggesting that it is a “catch-all” that can fix our current systems. Instead, downcycling acts as an alternative to divert materials for slightly longer periods, though they will end up as waste eventually. This is a global issue…

In order to successfully change our systems and focus our efforts on a more coherent and sustainable recycling system, we need to rethink how we approach the vast majority of recycling. We must focus on creating a functional circular economy. 

Lasso Loop Recycling is doing just that, creating an entirely new closed-loop recycling system that puts the power back into the hands of the recycler. Lasso Loop’s at-home recycling appliance scans, cleans, processes, and stores the valuable end products in clean, separate storage compartments. 

The Lasso will closed-loop recycle valuable used materials without diverting them to landfills, something that we see very little of in our current systems. Most of what our current recycling system accepts goes straight to landfills. This revolutionary technology will eliminate the shortcomings of our current system, connecting the materials and the manufacturers more directly, creating a truly circular economy. This system will guarantee that materials will retain their properties and be made into products of equal or similar value, as opposed to ending up as waste or leaking into our environment. 

Stay in the Lasso Loop and watch as the world of recycling changes for the better! Follow us on Instagram and reserve your Lasso today!


Abigail Holt // 2 September 2022

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