Closed Loop vs Open Loop Recycling: Definitions, Differences, Examples, & More

In the guide below, we explain and compare closed loop vs open loop recycling.

We outline what each one is (providing definitions), list some of the main differences between them, provide examples of each, & list some potential benefits & drawbacks of each.


What Is Closed Loop Recycling? (A Definition)

Closed loop recycling is when a material or product can be recycled over and over again (or indefinitely) into what it was originally used for, without degrading or losing it’s original properties or traits.

Mostly recycled materials are used (usually with either very little, or no use of new raw materials), and these materials are therefore kept in the ‘loop’ where they can be utilized again in the economy without becoming waste.

When materials are kept inside this loop instead of being disposed outside of it, this is sometimes referred to as ‘closing the loop’.

The result of closed loop recycling might be less material loss, reduced waste generated, and fewer raw materials used.

Closed loop recycling might be considered a process/activity that forms part of a circular economy.


What Is Open Loop Recycling? (A Definition)

Open loop recycling involves recycling materials into materials for the same/original use, or for a different use (downcycling the material may lead to recycling the material for a different use for example)

Open loop recycling may use some recycled material, but it may also use some new raw material in the recycled product.

Open loop recycling may simply delay material ending up in landfill or going to incineration because each time the material is recycled, it may degrade in quality or lose some of it’s original properties, meaning at some point it will no longer be able to be downcycled and it will end up as waste.

Some plastic might be an example of this, whereby their polymer bonds weaken every time they are recycled

Open loop recycling therefore involves finite recycling of materials.

Open loop recycling may be considered a process or practice that is more of a part of a linear economy.


Closed Loop vs Open Loop Recycling: Main Differences

As a summary of the definitions above, the main differences between the two might be:

– Closed loop keeps more existing material in the economy or in the utilization loop for longer

– Closed loop may generate less waste, and may also keep more waste away from certain waste management options for longer

– Closed loop may use less of some inputs (like energy, water, chemicals, etc) in some instances

– Closed loop may require less new raw material when reusing recycled material

– Closed loop may use materials more frequently for their original use, compared to open loop which may use materials more frequently for a different use

– Closed loop may be more closely aligned with a circular economy, and open loop may be more closely aligned with a linear economy


Closed Loop Recycling Examples

A few examples of recycling that may come close to, or in some cases involve 100% closed loop recycling, might be:

– Recycling glass bottles back into glass bottles

– Recycling aluminum tins and cans back into aluminum tins and cans

– There may be a small range of plastics that can recycled in a closed loop process, with some plastic bottles being one potential example of this

– In the future, some types of water may experience some for of closed loop recycling


Open Loop Recycling Examples

A common example of open loop recycling is plastic recycling.

There’s a range of plastics that are recycled into different uses than the original use, or lower quality products.

For example, some plastics are downcycled into carpeting or fleece fibres

You can read more about the difference between recycling and downcycling in this guide


Potential Benefits & Drawbacks Of Closed Loop Recycling

Several of the benefits and drawbacks of closed loop recycling might be similar to the pros and cons of a circular economy that we listed in this separate guide.

As a brief summary though, some of the main potential benefits and drawbacks to closed loop recycling might be:

Potential Benefits

There May Be Sustainability & Environmental Benefits

From a sustainability perspective, if less new raw materials are used, and there’s less requirement for inputs to be used (like water, energy, chemicals, etc) at the production stage, this may be beneficial for sustainable resource management and the overall sustainability footprint of recycling

From an environmental perspective, if there’s less waste generated, and less waste going to landfill, incineration, and other waste disposal destinations, there may be less potential for waste pollution and a range of other environmental issues 


There May Be Economic Benefits

Some closed loop recycling processes may create new economic opportunities, such as new business opportunities, as well as new employment and income opportunities


Potential Drawbacks

There May Be Practical Limitations & Challenges To Consider

Not all materials and products can practically be recycled in a closed loop process

The properties of the material, or some other incompatibility issue, may make it practically difficult, or even impossible to recycle some materials in a closed loop process


There May Be Economic Drawbacks & Issues

Not all materials and products are economically feasible or profitable to recycle, and not all materials and products may be economically feasible or profitable to recycle in a closed loop process.

There’s also the consideration of how closed loop processing impacts the manufacturing and waste management industries.

Although new economic opportunities may arise in the closed loop recycling industry and also related industries, there may be a corresponding decrease in economic opportunities in traditional recycling and specific waste management options in some instances.


Potential Benefits & Drawbacks Of Open Loop Recycling

Several of the benefits and drawbacks of open loop recycling might be similar to the pros and cons of a linear economy that we listed in this separate guide.

As a brief summary though, some of the main potential benefits and drawbacks to open loop recycling might be:

Potential Benefits

Open Loop Recycling Is Already Well Established

Open loop recycling may already be far more common in places where recycling takes place compared to closed loop recycling


May Be More Practical In Some Instances

Some materials may make far more practical sense for open loop recycling because of their properties, and, some materials may only be suitable for open loop recycling over closed loop recycling 

Available recycling equipment and technology may play a role in this, in addition to the material itself


May Have Economic Benefits

Some forms of open loop recycling may be far more economically feasible (and profitable for recyclers) than closed loop recycling.


Potential Drawbacks

Some Groups May Irresponsibly Take Advantage Of Open Loop Recycling At The Expense Of Others

For example, in places where there’s credits, concessions or rewards for recycling, some groups may push more waste towards recycling streams.

This may benefit them financially, but, if the waste ends up downcycled and eventually going to landfill or incineration anyway, it may not necessarily be what is best for society from an economics or sustainability point of view.


May Have Sustainability & Environmental Drawbacks To Consider

In particular, open loop recycling may use more new raw materials and inputs, and may contribute to resource depletion in some ways.

Also, there may be a greater eco footprint if more resources and inputs are used, or if more waste is generated from the open loop recycling process.


What Is Closed Loop Production?

Closed loop production specifically refers to the production and manufacturing stage.

It means that materials and waste used and generated during production/manufacturing are reused.

Companies sometimes claim that they use a ‘closed loop system’ when they use closed loop production processes.


What Is A Closed Loop Supply Chain?

A closed loop supply chain is essentially the same thing as closed loop production.

It applies to the supply and production stage of a material’s lifecycle, and involves businesses reusing supply and production stage waste and outputs for future production.

















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