What Does ‘Close the Loop’ Really Mean?

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How does the closed-loop system work?

As we now know, the closed-loop system is about more than simply recycling those bottles and cans. To truly “close the loop,” manufacturers must use tossed materials to make new products, and consumers must be interested enough to purchase products made from recycled materials.

Many materials, such as glass and aluminum, can be recycled indefinitely — meaning a product can potentially cycle through the “closed loop” thousands of times, as long as it’s continually recycled along the way.

The concept of using a recycled material indefinitely to make new products — virtually eliminating the need for virgin materials – may sound far-fetched, but it’s actually already happening.


A worker mixes recycled glass in a furnace to be remade into new products. Glass recycling is a fairly advanced closed-loop system, and it can take a mere 30 days for a glass bottle to go from a recycling bin to supermarket shelves. Photo: Flickr/afronie

Glass containers, for example, are almost always made into new bottles or jars. An estimated 80 percent of reclaimed glass is processed through bottle-to-bottle recycling, and it can take as little as 30 days for a glass bottle to go from the recycling bin to a supermarket shelf.

You Asked, Earth911 Answered: Your Top Glass Questions

Likewise, the vast majority of recycled aluminum is used to make new cans. An estimated 68 percent of each aluminum can sold in the U.S. is made from recycled materials, and it takes a mere 60 days for an aluminum can to go from the curbside bin to a store shelf.

How is this possible? With recycling rates of 33 percent and 58 percent respectively, glass and aluminum have a long history of being two of the most commonly diverted materials in the country – making for a vast supply of recycled feedstock for manufacturers.

Using recycled materials also saves loads of money, energy and other resources when compared to virgin materials, making it even more appealing for manufacturers to choose recycled.

For example, it takes 95 percent less energy to make a can from recycled aluminum compared to virgin metals. So, doing their part to close the loop is not only an act of goodwill on the part of manufacturers, it also makes economic sense.

As the recycling infrastructure for other materials expands and the concept of “going green” gains in popularity, smaller closed-loop systems are beginning to spring up across the country, including auto giants crafting car seats from soda bottles and fashion companies creating accessories from plastic grocery bags.

Related: Mazda Closes the Loop on Bumper Recycling

glass by color

Ground glass is separated by color before being sold to manufacturers for use in new products. Photo: Flickr/Orin Zebest

What does the closed loop mean for me?

The consumer (meaning you) is at the heart of the closed-loop system. As illustrated by the chasing arrows recycling symbol, the “manufacturing” step is the only part of the closed-loop system that consumers do not have direct control over.

So, what does that mean for us? Like most things in life, it depends on how you look at it.

Consumers’ ability to directly impact how much recyclable material is diverted from landfills and how many recycled-content products are sold is, in many ways, empowering. By tossing that plastic bottle in the recycling bin or buying a product made from recycled materials, you complete the recycling loop for that product – reducing waste and conserving natural resources.

Over the next year, Earth911 will delve deeper into the closed-loop concept to answer all of your most pressing questions: Why are some materials easier to recycle than others? Why doesn’t my city offer curbside recycling? Are companies selling recycled-content products for the PR boost, or does this “act of green” really matter? Stay tuned for these answers and more here at Earth911.

More Need-to-Know Eco Info: Top Recycling Questions Answered

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Mary Mazzoni

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