The Eco-Glossary: Making Sense of Green Labels
These products were made from material that was diverted from a landfill, either during manufacturing (like milling paper scraps into full sheets) or when a consumer dropped it in a recycling box. Usually the material is returned to its original state—paper pulp, molten glass, etc.—then shaped into a new product. But unless the label says "100 percent recycled," the product is likely made from a mix of recycled and nonrecycled materials. The term is often confused with recyclable, which merely means that it can be used to make another product.
This is a fancy way of saying that a product, or the material used to make it, has been reused or repurposed. That could mean using lumber from old buildings in a new home, or turning boat sails into handbags or old tires into flip-flops—anything that results in a second life.
Manufacturers use this term when high-quality products are made from lower-quality goods, a process that's designed to keep existing materials in use. (Recycling often results in lower-quality goods, as when printer paper is turned into newsprint.) Plus, higher-quality items are less likely to end up in a landfill. For example, you can drop off old, worn Patagonia T-shirts and Polartec fleeces at Patagonia stores, and the company will up-cycle them into new ones.
The idea behind this philosophy, championed by eco-architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, is that the life and afterlife of products are planned from beginning to end, ideally resulting in a perfectly closed, zero-waste system. Often, the product (like a rug or pair of shoes) is designed to be returned to the manufacturer and made into a new item. Of course, products like biodegradable hand soaps (made with biodegradable packaging) can also be labeled "cradle-to-cradle," because they literally disappear after use.
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