Recycling, Upcycling, and Refurbishing – What’s the Difference

Guest Post by: Kylie Martin, Freelance Content Writer

The planet is in danger. Global warming has worsened in the last few decades because of our indiscriminate use of resources that otherwise have safer alternatives. Our collective and individual carbon footprint has caused the deterioration of the only viable home in this expansive universe. Thankfully, it’s not too late to do something about the problem. 

For instance, collectively, we can all agree to support policies that put the planet first before everything else, especially capital and profit. Or, individually, we can choose to live more responsibly, actively lowering our carbon footprint one small decision at a time.

As for individual contributions, there are three options you can start with: recycling, upcycling, and refurbishing. Although related, these three concepts are not interchangeable. 

In this blog post, we will discuss what differentiates recycling, upcycling, and refurbishing, along with some tips on how you can start practicing these concepts at home. Remember that even the most seemingly simple effort will have a huge impact on humanity’s common goal of saving the planet. 

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch via Pexels

The Benefits

Recycling, upcycling, and refurbishing share some common factors. That is in terms of the benefits they yield. When you carry out any of these environmentally-friendly efforts, you allow the following:

  • Reduction of wastes that go to incinerators, oceans, and landfills
  • Conservation of natural resources
  • Prevention of pollution linked to the harvest, distribution, and processing of raw materials
  • Energy conservation
  • Job creation

The benefits of recycling, upcycling, and refurbishing cannot be overstated. And it’s high time you get behind these practices if you haven’t already. To get you started, here’s what you need to know about each one of them.


Recycling is the process where you turn discarded materials into usable products. It involves both the collection and processing of stuff already labeled as trash.

If you decide to recycle, there are two ways to go about it. You can either DIY or participate in the recycling loop. Should you go for the former, the first step is identifying the recyclable materials in your household. Here are the common recyclable items you can find in your home:

  • Glass bottles
  • Paper rolls
  • Plastic bottles
  • Stale bread
  • Books
  • Clothes
  • Vegetable peelings
  • Corks
  • Plastic Pots
  • Dryer sheets
  • Egg cartons
  • Coffee grounds
  • Old and damaged tiles
  • Mailing tubes
  • Bottle caps
  • CDs and DVDs
  • Shoe boxes
  • Folding cartons

Once you have identified the promising trash in your household, the next step is to imagine what you could turn them into. Here are some ideas:

  1. Donate old clothes that are still good enough to be worn to charity. Those that are already too tattered for second-hand use can be turned into kitchen rags or towels. Cut them up and stitch the pieces together to come up with a nice shape and design. 
  2. Break the habit of putting stale bread in the trash and get creative in your kitchen instead. Turn stale bread into a yummy pudding. Or, at the very least, use it to feed birds and other animals that could use some starch.
  3. Turn old newspapers into fun art projects. You could make papier-mache, for example. Or, if you’re not that crafty, you can at least use those papers as filler material for parcels with fragile content.

For those too busy to pursue DIY recycling, an excellent alternative is to participate in the recycling loop. That’s where the bulk of your responsibility lies in collecting recyclable materials. Those materials reach the loop via the following:

  • Deposit or refund programs
  • Curbside collection
  • Drop-off centers

Yes, you have the choice to either earn from trash or donate them. Whichever route you take, you can rest assured that those will have a new lease on life.

To take your commitment to recycling further, patronize products made from recycled materials. Products that usually have recycled content include steel cans, aluminum containers, newspapers, and paper towels, among others.


With recycling, you normally break down discarded materials to give way to new products. In upcycling, it’s all about repurposing.

Upcycling is the process of reimagining an old material or product into an altogether new material or product that’s usable and stylish. Here, the operative words are usable and stylish. For your effort to be considered an upcycling success, the result must marry form and substance.

The best thing about upcycling is you can practice it strictly as a hobby or turn it into a lucrative business. Given how consumers today are more partial to environmentally-friendly brands and products, it’s become easier to build a name and offer consumer products from scratch, both literally and figuratively. Here are some ideas.

  • Turn glass bottles into ornaments. Colored bottles with fairy lights look nice in gardens. Colored bottles fashioned into dream catchers are a great idea, too.
  • Do you have a worn-out ladder in the shed? Turn it into a design piece. Smoothen its surfaces, and make them shine. Soon you have something awe-inspiring to display in your living room, where you could hang picture frames and what-not. Or it could be a bookshelf.
  • Use old wooden pallets as outdoor seating areas. Alternatively, if you’re in the process of building or redesigning your house, you could stack those pallets on top of each other to create a staircase. They could also work as quaint coffee tables.
  • Don’t throw away wine corks. Turn them into bath mats or kitchen backboards.
  • Do you have broken cabinets lying around? Use the shelves as decorative elements on doors or windows.
  • If your household consumes bottles after bottles of sodas, you can turn those plastic bottles into herb planters. 
  • Got a bunch of old jeans lying around? You can dress up your storage bins for your craft materials using denim. 

The range of materials that can be upcycled runs the gamut. From the smallest pins to the biggest wardrobes, you can pretty much upcycle anything that has outgrown its original purpose. Sure, the process will require legitimate effort on your end. But at least you will no longer have to buy the stuff you need. And if you keep at it, yours will be an honest-to-goodness eco-friendly home.


Refurbishing is the process of renewing or restoring an item to a new condition and/or appearance. It differs from recycling and upcycling because it does not deal with trash. You refurbish something you believe has yet to outgrow its original purpose. You neither break down an old discarded product nor create a new function for old material.

One of the most popular items that go through refurbishing is electronic devices. There is a loyal customer base for refurbished electronics, from laptops to mobile devices. That’s understandable given that these products are sold at relatively lower prices than those fresh from the factory line. And they’re not defective either since they have already gone through the stringent process of refurbishing. That process entails the following steps:

  1. Data wipe – All the previous owner’s data is professionally removed.
  2. Technical inspection and repair – All technical aspects of the gadget are checked for existing issues. For example, a phone will be tested for camera reliability, battery performance, network connection and quality, and display accuracy. If defective parts or functions are identified, they are either replaced or fixed.
  3. External refurbishing – Most refurbished gadgets look new because they go through high-quality cleaning and polishing. Specialists assess the end-product and assign it a category, which determines its price range.
  4. Packaging and shipping – Expect to receive a refurbished gadget you ordered from an e-commerce shop to be delivered to your door in such a way that will excite you enough that you can’t help but record an unboxing video. Even if you buy from a physical store, one way to gauge the quality of the refurbished gadget you’re about to purchase is by looking at the packaging.

If you buy refurbished gadgets, you’re doing Mother Nature a solid in reducing e-waste, for devices have toxic components that can leak and damage the environment. Remember that e-waste is one of our most pressing environmental concerns. A refurbished gadget means you have saved electronics from ending up in a landfill.

Final Thoughts

Some people mistakenly think that what they do is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. However, that’s not exactly the case. For instance, every time you participate in the consumerist culture, you add to your individual carbon footprint. 

Conversely, every time you make an intelligent decision as a consumer, you might contribute something to the collective goal of keeping the planet livable for future generations. Always, it’s best to opt for the latter. You can do that by choosing to recycle, upcycle, or refurbish.

There are many projects to which you could apply those concepts. It only takes a little creativity and lots of commitment. In times when you waver, remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s for the sake of humanity as a whole. Or if you need something more specific than that, it’s for the sake of your direct descendants. Either way, it’s a cause worth fighting for.


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