Different people have different ideas about what “closing the loop” means. For some, it’s about reaching fitness goals with a smartwatch or finishing a craft project like crocheting. But in sustainability, it’s a big deal. It’s like reaching the highest standard, creating a system that keeps going without end. But it’s not easy to achieve unless you have all the right inputs.

Many believe that “closed-loop recycling” is essential for creating a truly circular economy. As companies in manufacturing, shipping, and retail gear up their supply chains for the next big challenge, it’s valuable to understand the distinctions between systems, who’s making progress with closed-loop practices, and how your business can make it happen.

What is Closed-loop Recycling?

Closed-loop recycling is when used items get recycled and used again to make the same product. In this system, the design of products is essential for the entire process to work well. It focuses on collecting items from consumers easily, making it simple to create new products, and making sure it’s economically smart.

A few examples of closed-loop recycling are glass for bottles and jars, aluminum for cans, and a small amount of plastics. Glass and aluminum can be recycled many times without losing quality, which makes them super valuable for the loop. Interestingly, 75% of all the aluminum ever made is still being used today. Sadly, only 2% of plastic worldwide is used again to make similar products.

Open-Loop vs Closed-Loop Recycling

Closed-loop recycling is different from the more common open-loop recycling. In open-loop recycling, the end of a product’s life can go in different directions: it can be recycled into new but less good products, or it might end up as waste.

Talking about open-loop systems might sound a bit complex, but let us simplify it for you. In an open-loop system, things get reused, but not as effectively as in a closed-loop system. It’s a bit like recycling, but the new stuff made is not as good as the original.

Stuff like cardboard and paper can be recycled quite a few times before they start to lose quality. But things like many plastics and sometimes food waste don’t work as well in open-loop systems. For instance, PET plastic can turn into things like fleece and carpets, while cardboard can come back as cereal boxes or paper towels.

Some companies are doing cool things with this idea. Chipotle, for example, is using avocado pits to dye sustainable clothes, and Trex is making deck planks from plastic bags from places like Albertsons.

What Type of Waste is Involved in Closed-loop Recycling?

Closed-loop recycling is great for materials that can be recycled without losing their quality. These include:

  • Aluminum (like cans)
  • Glass
  • Certain types of plastic

Closed Loop Recycling Process

The steps in the recycling process vary depending on the type of waste, but here’s a general overview:

  1. Collection: Waste is gathered from homes, businesses, and recycling banks.
  2. Cleaning: The waste undergoes cleaning to remove contaminants.
  3. Processing: Waste is cut or crushed into manageable pieces.
  4. Transformation: The resources from the waste are used to create new products.

Let’s look at the recycling process for aluminium drink cans as an example:

  1. Collection: Aluminium cans are collected from various sources like homes, recycling centers, and businesses.
  2. Sorting: Recyclable items are taken to a local materials recovery facility where they’re sorted. Magnets help separate metals, and aluminium is compacted into bales.
  3. Reprocessing: Aluminium bales are sent to a reprocessing plant. There, the aluminium undergoes shredding, de-coating, melting, and casting into ingots.
  4. Refinement: The ingots are transported to a rolling mill where they’re flattened into aluminium sheets.
  5. Manufacturing: Aluminium sheets are used to create new drinks cans and other aluminium products.

It’s worth noting that aluminum has been recycled for about a century, with 75% of all aluminum ever used still in circulation today. Closed-loop recycling ensures that aluminum products like soda cans have had multiple lives, contributing to sustainability efforts.

The Impact of Close-loop Recycling on Economic Conditions

The demand for products and how well closed-loop recycling works depend on the value of reused resources.

Closed-loop recycling is common in certain industries, like computers and batteries. These industries use materials that are expensive or complicated, making it hard to break them down into basic resources.

When we use closed-loop recycling, it can help reduce the amount of stuff we throw away, making landfills last longer. For example, if we recycle one ton of plastic in a closed-loop system, it saves about 7.5 cubic yards of landfill space. The grocery industry shows that people use at least 690,000 tons of plastic in a year. If everyone used ideal closed-loop recycling, it could save around 5.1 million cubic yards of landfill space every year.

Closing Thoughts

Closed-loop recycling isn’t just about environmental benefits; it’s about creating a sustainable future. By understanding its principles and embracing its practices, businesses can contribute to a circular economy. It’s a step towards minimizing waste, conserving resources, and building a greener planet for generations to come.