Green Cycle Terms: Recycle, Pre-Cycle, Upcycle and Cradle-to-Cradle

January 15, 2012 View all articles in General

Terms like recycling, re-using, upcycling, etc... are thrown about quite regularly but what do they really mean?  If a bottle is re-used as a vase is that recycling, upcycling or just being cheap? Take a look below to find what all those "cycle" terms mean for us and for the planet.


Recycling is one of the most popular “green” activities supported by most cities and waste disposal companies throughout the United States. In its most simple form, recycling involves the proper disposal of renewable and reusable products like plastic, paper, aluminum, steel and glass. These recyclable products can either be taken to the local recycling center or are picked up each week in a special recycling bin along with the regular household trash.


This “green” concept has become more popular of late as more individuals realize that recycling plastic, glass, aluminum, and other reusable products still requires some energy and resources. Proponents of “Pre-Cycling” argue that we can truly help the planet if we think before we buy; planning out our purchases and buying the right product at the right time can help us cut down on the energy required to recycle. Some easy ways to “Pre-Cycle” include:

  • Rather than purchasing individually wrapped products that use extra plastic and cardboard wrapping (something that could easily end up in a landfill) buy that same product in bulk form. Bulk products use less packaging and ultimately require less recycling.
  • Bringing your own cloth shopping bags to the store not only helps you reuse the bags you already have at home, but also prevents you from having to recycle additional plastic bags down the road.
  • Instead of purchasing plastic utensils, Styrofoam cups and paper plates, use the regular silverware, cups and plates you already have in the kitchen. Doing this will keep you from having to find a way to recycle those old bits of plastic and paper after the BBQ is over.
  • Go paperless with your news: instead of reading the newspaper and then having to haul that stack of old news to the recycling center every week, read the news online or even at the local library to cut down on both clutter and an overflowing recycle bin.


Unlike recycling (which breaks down a product into its most basic parts to use it again in the same way) Upcycling (sometimes called re-using) transforms old and unused objects into something different and useable. While some companies are keen to Upcycle old products in order to establish the ever more popular “green business” model, many individuals around the country find Upcycling an enjoyable activity that can be done in the home. Some examples of Upcycling include:

  • Turning an old soda bottle into a table lamp.
  • Using an Altoids tin to hold gum, change, batteries, keys, and other small items.
  • Assembling that collection of old wine corks into a handy corkboard.
  • Sewing a quilt out of old denim clothing.
  • Upcycling those old CDs and DVDs into drink coasters.
  • Reworking an old computer case or Mac G4 cube into a small fish aquarium.


The Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) approach in both manufacturing and design encourages individuals to not only embrace green business models, but to also create systems that are highly efficient as well as waste free. This concept derives from the notion that industry and engineering should treat raw commodities like metal, wood, or chemicals as nutrients that can be metabolized without damage to the environment. Some examples of C2C design include:

  • Covering the roof on a building with a low-growing groundcover that both insulates the building beneath and filters rainwater. This kind of design improves the local water table while at the same time creating usable shelter.
  • Creating a disposable bottle out of organic materials rather than synthetic materials. This organic bottle can be easily disposed of and will decay rather than sit in a landfill or sent to a recycling center.
  • Manufacturing a carpet whose backing, fibers and thread are all returned to the company after use to once again be integrated into new carpet as the same kind of backing, fibers and thread.


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