Recycling: Upstream vs. Downstream

Have you ever wondered what upstream and downstream recycling means? 

If so,you’re not alone.  I often get asked this question and I thought I would answer it.

Upstream recycling can be summed up in one term- “design for environment” or DfE.  An upstream product is manufactured with a keen eye on environmental sustainability.  For instance, a manufacturer will create packaging that weighs less by using fewer materials for a product’s packaging. A DfE manufacturer will also consider using eco-friendly materials or a single material in the packaging & product design, coding and labeling when different materials are used, and allow ease of product material dis-assembly.  DfE products may cost less to recycle and have a sustainable impact on our environment.  A fantastic example of DfE is the Micro-USB charger. The Micro-USB will be the common charging interface for mobile phones.  The Micro USB-based plug will enable all mobile phones to power up using the same charger regardless of make and model.  For more information please see my recent blog “One-Charger Fits All Revolution”.  For upstream recycling, the responsibility is on the manufacturer.

Downstream recycling can be summed up in one term- “giving products a second life”.  Downstream recycling or down-recycling is when a non-recyclable product is re-purposed into material for a new product of sometimes lesser quality. This can include varying grades of plastic, paper products, and other materials. An outstanding example of a company built upon down-cycling is TerraCycle. TerraCycle turns non-recyclable products into recycled products. Through their international waste collection programs, they turn the collected waste into new products, such as fertilizer, backpacks and park benches. For downstream recycling, the responsibility is on the consumer.

Please share your comments and experiences with upstream and downstream recycling.  We would love to hear your story.


  1. john doors   •  

    So where does upcycling fit into the equation :) perhaps the call for an eco dictionary would be a good one.

  2. Heather Heather   •  

    Hi John, thanks for asking… To put it simply, downcycling reduces the quality of the materials, while upcycling maintains or improves the quality of the materials.

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