Recycle, upcycle, or re-use? Your guide to eco-savvy living.

You don’t need to be a full-fledged eco-warrior to understand how important responsible waste management is in protecting our environment. Yet many of us aren’t sure when it’s better to recycle, upcycle or re-use. Knowing the difference can make a difference.

So, here’s a quick, easy guide to make you eco-savvy and maximise the impact of your efforts to help the planet and keep waste out of carbon and methane-producing landfills.

Let’s talk rubbish for a minute.

Ok, well, we prefer the term “waste”. But semantics aside, what do the words we use to talk about how we process waste really mean? All these options have a part to play in living sustainably.

  • Re-using. According to South Africa’s laws, re-using is taking things we might discard and use them again without changing them. For instance, using a glass jar to store leftovers rather than binning it.
  • Recycling. Again, by South Africa’s definition , this involves collecting waste, sorting it, and turning it into new items. Like pulping old cardboard and paper to make new paperboard.
  • Upcycling. The trendy cousin in the waste management family. Upcycling is about taking something old or something that’s no longer in use and giving it a new life and purpose, often improving its value. However, it’s crucial to note that upcycling can sometimes involve adding new materials that are not recyclable. This could turn a perfectly recyclable item into something that can’t be recycled. For example, gluing plastic beads onto a glass bottle may make it non-recyclable.
  • Downcycling. As with upcycling, downcycling takes something that’s not in use and repurposes it. However, the new item is of lesser quality or value than the original. You can usually tell because the new item is weaker or less functional. It’s less glamorous but still plays its part. For instance, turning scrap paper into egg cartons, which are generally considered to be of lower quality and durability compared to many other paper products.

The National Environmental Management Waste Act and the Waste Management Hierarchy

In recognition of population growth and modern consumerism’s increasing impact on the environment and on climate change, the South African government introduced legislation designed to reform the law regulating waste and introduce countermeasures. The act goes into detail on how the application of waste management systems can help combat the negative effects of the waste we create. As stated in the act, waste management needs to include the waste management hierarchy.

The simple hierarchy is: Reduce, re-use and recycle. Reducing is a no-brainer for lessening the amount of waste. We must be realistic about the things that we need in our modern lives and yet we can make a huge impact on the amount of waste we produce by avoiding buying things we don’t need and may not even use. Even for things we really do need we can be more conscious of the product and more selective.


While Mpact Recycling focuses primarily on, well, recycling, we cannot downplay the monumental importance of re-using. Being re-used means it obviously doesn’t end up in landfills and at the same time it reduces the need for new products to be manufactured, which in turn means less virgin material needs to be produced. Think of re-using as the golden oldie of waste management. It’s straightforward, fuss-free, and best of all, it doesn’t compromise an item’s recyclability.

Ways to Re-use.
  • Refill water bottles instead of buying a new bottle.
  • Refill any product instead of replacing it where possible.
  • Carry a shopping bag with you so you won’t need bags at the shop.
  • Buy containers and cutlery that can be washed and used again.
  • Don’t throw things away if they can be donated to a charity or perhaps sold.


As a form of re-using, upcycling has an equally important role in preventing waste from piling up in landfills. Its unique feature is that the repurposed object or material becomes something of greater value or purpose than before. Indeed, upcycling has its merits, but it’s worth approaching it with a measured eye. DIY upcycling can sometimes compromise and inadvertently sabotage an item’s recyclability.

Mass upcycling has the benefit of scale in the sense that great quantities of material can be collected, spruced up and resold making significant reductions in materials being diverted from landfills. The difference between recycling and mass upcycling is that the material doesn’t need to be broken down and remanufactured but simply reformed. A good example is the fashion industry. Old and out-of-fashion clothes are collected and altered to become fashionable again. Textile recycling is more accurately described as upcycling.

As individuals at home, we can also practice sustainability by using our imaginations and sometimes artisanal skills to make a disused item serve as something better. For instance, you might think of turning an old plastic bottle or container into a birdfeeder. However, this practice can be a double-edged sword. The problem is that in making a new item we often add accessories to it or alter it to make it into the ‘better’ new object we want. That may be as simple a thing as painting the birdfeeder. When the birdfeeder reaches the end of its lifespan it is contaminated and no longer recyclable. It is therefore not truly sustainable. Downcycling faces the same potential problem. For instance, making a DIY Halloween costume out of a cardboard box makes the cardboard non-recyclable if glitter and glue have been added.


While recycling may technically rank slightly lower in the waste management hierarchy, this is somewhat deceptive. Recycling has a unique role and distinctive importance for a simple reason: our population and consumer society generate volumes of waste that only recycling provides a practical, long-term solution for.

Recycling is at the very heart of sustainability. By collecting waste and turning it into new products we are laying the groundwork for a circular economy, where the products we use, or the materials of those products, don’t end up as waste in landfills but back in the shops for us to buy and use again.

In most cases, recycling waste into a new product uses only a fraction of the amount of energy that manufacturing virgin material uses. So, recycling not only reduces the amount of space taken up in South African landfills but doesn’t contribute to carbon and methane emissions and reduces our energy consumption. Let’s take the aluminium industry as an example. According to International Aluminium, the global body for the primary aluminium industry, a recycled aluminium can requires only 5% of the energy to produce than making a can from bauxite. And aluminium can be recycled indefinitely. 

Recycling is particularly critical for South Africa, where population growth, urbanisation and a lack of financial and physical resources have exacerbated our waste dilemma. Lack of awareness has also meant that South Africans are less likely to recycle waste. According to the 2012 National Waste Information Baseline Report from South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs, only about 10% of our waste is recycled. There have been no new statistics released since the 2012 report.

Recycling has an added benefit in South Africa. It provides income opportunities for between 60,000 and 90,000 people.

Knowing the Difference Means Making the Greatest Difference to the Environment

As South Africa’s leading collector of recyclable packaging and the country’s leading recycler of paper, our business concern is efficient recycling. As part of the Mpact Group, our wider concern is sustainability in general and the need to create a true circular economy. Whether you re-use, upcycle, or recycle, while the words may have different meanings, the thought behind them remains living sustainably as much as is possible.

Recycling helps preserve our natural resources, protects the environment and limits climate change. By working together, we can achieve so much more.

Mpact Recycling runs programmes such as the Ronnie Recycler Schools Programme to educate children and the Residential Estates Recycling Programme. We provide interested businesses and individuals with information on how to get involved and make a difference.

Contact Mpact Recycling for any recycling questions you may have or find a drop-off site for your recyclables.

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