What Is Closed Loop Recycling?

Crushed aluminum cans for recycling

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Closed loop recycling is the process of collecting and reprocessing recycled goods without losing the integrity of the original material. In a closed loop, goods are recycled over and over again and remade into the same (or similar) products every time, without any waste going to a landfill.

Closed loop recycling works for materials like aluminum and glass because they can be processed repeatedly without degrading. Not all materials fit the bill, though, so the closed loop process is not applicable in all circumstances. 

Why Go Closed Loop?

Ideally, everything “new” would come from goods that already exist, therefore eliminating the need for virgin materials and placing more value on sustainable ones. The EPA estimates that producing new glass from recycled glass requires 30 percent less energy than using virgin materials. Even more impressively, it takes 95 percent less energy to produce a can from recycled aluminum compared to its virgin metal counterpart. 

The Steps of Closed Loop Recycling

Just like the three arrows that form the famous Mobius loop, the concept of closed loop recycling encompasses three steps: collection, manufacturing, and purchasing.

Collection

Since you can’t begin to recycle something if it doesn’t end up in a blue bin, the closed loop process's first step is collection. Recyclable products are then transported to facilities that process and prepare the materials for specialized manufacturers.

Manufacturing

Second, manufacturing plants take the processed recycled material and turn them into new products, typically by compacting, shredding, or melting.

Purchasing

Just like collection, this third and final step also requires the participation of ordinary people. The “loop” can only be closed when thoughtful consumers choose to purchase goods made from recycled materials. It's important to favor items that have the potential to be recycled indefinitely, like glass, to continue the closed loop cycle.

Closed Loop Recycling vs. Open Loop Recycling

In open loop recycling, the manufactured good is not recycled indefinitely. Instead, the recycled materials are converted into some combination of new raw materials and waste. 

Most of the time, the materials in an open loop cannot be recycled more than once. Paper, for example, loses its durability as the fibers shorten each time it is recycled. And plastic, because of its weak polymers, can typically only be recycled once or twice into a new plastic product.

Open loop recycling delays the journey into the landfill and creates something else of value before a material is inevitably trashed. By contrast, in a closed loop system, the goal is to avoid the landfill altogether, so a product's eventual recyclability is kept in mind from the design and manufacturing level.

How You Can Close the Loop

Recycling shouldn’t be considered an environmental “fix-all,” and it certainly won’t take care of the substantial issues continuing to plague our planet on its own. To avoid waste, consumers and corporations should first reduce (by not producing or buying unneeded goods) and reuse (by repairing and repurposing goods rather than discarding them). Once those avenues have been exhausted, the next best option is to recycle.

But doing your part to close the loop doesn’t stop with recycling in your own home. 

First, consider going plastic-free. Most plastic can only be reprocessed once before going to a landfill. (According to one report, the world burns or dumps enough plastic to fill a double-decker bus each second, equivalent to 70 million metric tons annually.) 

Second, when you are shopping, look for sustainable products that have already been through the recycling loop at least once. It's no secret that businesses are responsive to the consumer market, and buying recycled goods keeps up market demand. 

Third, do your part by learning recycling limitations in your own area. Check How2Recycle to learn about the recycling programs in your community so that you can make more informed decisions about what you buy and what goes into your blue bin. If you live in an apartment without curbside recycling capabilities, find a local recycling drop-off point by asking someone in your complex office or using the Earth911 recycling search.