Which Recycling is Better–Closed or Open Loop?

By Andrea Davis on October 25, 2019

Once you’ve done the important work of determining what can be recycled in your area, preparing the materials for recycling and putting them out at the curb, putting them in your commercial recycling container or taking them to a drop-off, you may not worry much about how your materials are being recycled. The important thing is that they are being recycled, right? But not all recycling is created equal. There are actually two distinct types of recycling loops and one of them is lacking closure.

Open Loop Recycling
Open loop recycling refers to recycling a product into a different product. For example, often plastic water bottles are recycled into sleeping bags or fleece jackets. There’s still a loop, with the plastic bottle going from manufacturing, to use, to recycling collection to recycling. However, due to the way the process works, it only happens once. When the sleeping bag or jacket eventually wears out, it can’t be recycled again (although there may be reuse or repurposing options). So rather than completely avoiding the trash, the plastic in that original bottle is just delayed on its way to going into the trash.

Closed Loop Recycling
With closed loop recycling, a product is recycled into the same product. This happens a lot with aluminum cans. When the item is recycled, the material doesn’t degrade any. It’s able to be recycled, filled with new product, used and recycled again. The loop is closed and that can just keeps going around and around.

So What’s Better?
From these descriptions, you may think that closed loop recycling is much better, and in many ways it is. That aluminum can will be kept out of the trash over and over instead of just once. But the reality is that not all materials are good candidates for closed loop recycling. Aluminum happens to be one that is, as is glass and some types of plastics. Many types of plastics, cardboard, boxboard and paper, however, can usually only be recycled once before they lose their material quality, so closed loop recycling doesn’t work with them.

To say that open loop recycling doesn’t have any value would be a false statement, though. While that plastic bottle may only be delayed from entering the trash, recycling it does mean that fewer natural resources are being used to create the sleeping bag or the fleece jacket. And using something more than once is almost always a good thing.

When you recycle something, you don’t have a choice about which product it ends up as and whether that constitutes open loop or closed loop recycling. No matter what though, as long as you’re following the recycling guidelines and making the effort, you can feel good about what you’re doing.

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