The verb "reclaim" means:

Recover (material) for reuse; recycle: 'a sufficient weight of plastic could easily be reclaimed'

The verb "recycle" means:

Convert (waste) into reusable material: 'car hulks were recycled into new steel' (as noun recycling) 'a call for the recycling of all paper'

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

They look like synonyms, but the actual usages seem very different.

For example, when you google "reclaimed wood furniture", you get 425,000 hits but only 263,000 hits for "recycled wood furniture".

The striking difference is when you google "recycled paper", you get around 7 million hits, but only 29,000 hits for "reclaimed paper". And I think the difference comes from the definitions of the two verbs. Recycled paper comes from mostly "waste".

Obvious questions:

  1. The 2 verbs seem to be interchangeable for furniture. But not for paper. Is there any reason why other than "that's the way it is"?

  2. I always used "reclaimed wood desk/furniture/table" for relatively cheap furniture. Does "recycled wood furniture" have a different connotation, probably related with "waste" in the definition?

In terms of etymology, recycle was used to mean "specifically of waste material from 1960". But there is no explanation about "when it started to mean to recycle in the [Etymology Online Dictionary] about "reclaim" except:

Meaning "bring waste land into useful condition fit for cultivation" first attested 1764,

  1. When did "reclaim" start to mean (sort of) "to recycle"? Are there any specific nouns that allow only "reclaim"?
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    When you 'reclaim' something, you return it to its original use, or at least you don't change it into something else. When you 'recycle' something you reduce it to constituent parts which are then reused to make something new. So they are related, but are not synonyms. – Marv Mills Nov 17 '15 at 15:44
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    Most pairs of synonyms are not exact synonyms: there are usually differences in usage or scope. – Colin Fine Nov 17 '15 at 15:45

The following article offers an interesting view on the differences between recycling and reclaiming (collecting or recovering). Essentially only recycling refers to the transformation of goods into something else (raw materials for instance):

  • Recycling – (1) to process in order to regain material, (2) to adapt to a new use (Webster)

  • What is misunderstood about this term is that people (myself included until a week ago) think recycling is the act of throwing their water bottles into a blue bin. In fact, recycling occurs after the hauling company picks up the bottles (or “reclaims” or “recovers” the recyclables), and it occurs after the bottles are taken to a MRF (Materials Recovery Facility – note: “Recovery” in the name).

  • Recycling actually occurs at another facility where the bales of bottles are sent for washing, cleaning, grinding, chopping, and processing which then turns the bottles into little flakes of recycled material. Those flakes can then be or reused in other products by melting the flakes into resin which is then molded into recycled products. That is a lot to digest.

  • What this means is that “reclaiming” or “recovering” or “collecting” is more along the lines of what we are doing when we throw bottles in blue bins. Us consumers and the hauling company “recover” and “collect” or “reclaim” the bottles. The MRFs also “collect” and “recover” or “reclaim” the bottles. The only people actually recycling are the companies who convert bottles to little flakes of recycled materials. And like I said, those companies are most often different than the municipal recycling facilities where our bottles first go.



It's conversion vs. recovery. Recycled paper is usually put through some type of process before it can be considered usable again. Same thing with the car hulks in your example. They were broken down and reformed into something entirely new. "Reclaim" carries the connotation that you are salvaging something or repurposing it.

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