Graphic illustration of closed loop recycling

Is ‘closed loop’ the future of recycling?

“What goes around comes around” used to be a negative expression, but when it comes to recycling, it could be the answer to dealing with our waste. Here, we explain ‘closed loop’ recycling.

Recycling feels like it’s getting more complicated – with so many questions to ask. What type of plastic is it? Is it compostable? Can I rinse and recycle it or do I need to bin it completely? And now there’s another label to get your head around: closed loop recycling. 

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The good news is closed loop recycling is something that local authorities or recycling companies tend to deal with, and the even better news is that we still benefit from the results. But we all have a part to play in helping ‘closed loop’ become one solution to our recycling problems. 

What is closed loop recycling?

In very simple terms, closed loop recycling means a product is created, recycled and then turned into a new product. This could be, for example: 
•    a glass jar is washed and reused as a glass jar, or is crushed and made into a different glass item
•    aluminium cans are melted down and reformed into car parts or pressed into new aluminium sheets
•    plastic bottles get turned into different bottles, clothes or insulation for our homes

This system reduces the need for raw materials, like fossil fuels to create plastic, and reduces the impact on the planet – less waste is sent to landfill and less pollution is produced. The idea is that the original materials (glass, plastic, etc) can be reused time and time again, creating the ‘loop’. 

Close-up of tin can tops

The downsides to closed loop recycling 

Closed loop recycling is a step in the right direction, but there are still problems, although most of these stem from our recycling process as a whole. 

In the UK, our recycling rates have hovered around 44-45% since 2013. There are many reasons for this, such as a lack of recycling facilities like deposit-return schemes outside the home, poor public information, differences in local authority recycling centres, and a UK recycling system that is ‘regarded as inefficient at best and broken at worst’. 

In addition to these major infrastructure problems, there are smaller issues closer to home. These include contamination with household recycling – not rinsing out jars or cans properly, which means the whole load may be sent to landfill or an incinerator – or poor sorting at recycling plants. 

Sorting is either done by hand, which introduces more opportunities for error, or machines, but not all plants have the right machinery to sort the different types of plastic or metal. 

The result? Not enough materials are currently recycled in order to create the ‘new’ materials needed to continue closed loop recycling.

Recycling bin filled with waste

What can we do to help closed loop recycling?

The most obvious step is to make sure you sort your household recycling properly; wash out all containers, check you’re putting the right items in the right bins, and find out what your local authority can actually process before throwing something away. But the most valuable thing we can do is to demand products made from recycled materials.

In the UK, small brands like Paper Round, a commercial recycling company founded by Friends of the Earth, now collect different types of business waste including used coffee grounds that are turned into bio-fuel pellets for bio-mass boilers. Bigger brands are also stepping up – Tesco is moving over to a closed loop packaging system, and in 2020 banned all single-use plastic multipacks from its shelves.

Even global companies such as Apple are transitioning towards 100% recycled products, while household giants including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestlé have signed up for TerraCycle’s Loop scheme; products in refillable, durable packaging are delivered to customers, then collected, washed and reused. Loop will be launching in the UK in 2020. 

You could also switch to only buying 100% recycled products, or write to your MP and ask what they’re doing to encourage greater consistency across council recycling collections. It’s time to close that loop while we have the chance.

More on recycling and packaging

Recycling symbols explained
6 pieces of packaging to avoid
10 tips for reducing your plastic waste
Reduce, reuse and recycle your plastic packaging
How to reduce food packaging waste

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Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly