What's the difference between up-cycled and recycled? And does reclaimed really mean anything? "Whenever you see any of these labels, it means that the manufacturer is getting more out of our resources," says Elizabeth Rogers, author of Shift Your Habit ($14; Amazon.com), a guide to eco-friendly living. We asked Rogers to help us unpack the packaging of your favorite green products.

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.

Learn More:

Natural? Sustainable? More green seals explained

How to make your own eco-friendly cleaning products

Is "green" makeup really green?


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