While many of the most sustainably-minded among us have heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle”, concepts of closed-loop recycling and open-loop recycling still elude common knowledge. They both involve turning waste into reuse, but the basic difference between them is that open-loop recycling allows anything to be made from the leftovers of a product, whereas closed-loop recycling allows a product to be remade from the leftovers of the product. In essence, open-loop recycling allows materials to leave the supply chain, and closed-loop recycling doesn’t. Both have the overall aim to reduce waste, but they do it in different ways.
Supply Chain Recycling
With closed-loop recycling in mind, many manufacturers have begun designing their products specifically to come back to them after they’ve been used so they can save money on constantly producing single-use items. It’s basically a larger scale version of washing your dishes after dinner to use them again tomorrow. Keeping materials within the same supply chain makes recycling very neat and easy, and it allows the biggest industry culprits of waste creation to be the ones to implement the solution.
As an added bonus, the manufacturer often doesn’t have to break down their own product to make something new - as in the case of an ink cartridge, they can simply refill it. If the same cartridge was given to another company to recycle, they would have to first identify the pieces that make up the cartridge. The manufacturer can skip the identifying materials step.
For the sustainable future we all dream of, we need to end wasteful production practises entirely and stop allowing waste to go into landfill. Given the choice, closed-loop recycling is a better option than open-loop recycling because it is completely self-sustained and results in zero waste, whereas open-loop recycling can result in losses and degradation of materials, and waste will occur. Specialised industries, especially printer and computer industries, tend to use closed-loop recycling programs, while governments often prefer open-loop recycling programs.
Recycling an empty printer cartridge is as easy as returning it to the manufacturer or a collection box at your local Australia Post Office. Original Printer cartridges can be broken up and reformed into other products. Upon delivery to the Close The Loop Recycling Program, ink cartridges are sorted into brands and types, and the ones that aren’t refilled and resold are put into the Green Machine. This specialised machinery extracts unique materials from the cartridges in a variety of ways, including using magnets to retrieve the metals, and then it breaks up the plastic.
Closed-loop and open-loop recycling cycles alike are known for their creative reuse strategies. The tiny quantity of leftover ink in a printer cartridge becomes quite a lot of ink when you’re recycling a city’s worth of printers. New pens, made entirely out of recycled plastic, are filled with recycled ink, and represent the ideal dream of a zero-waste world. More impressively, leftover toner can be used in the creation of new roads that last longer and better than asphalt. We can thank the plastic of ink cartridges for those comfortable plastic-wood benches in parks and gardens.
All in all, these recycling programs do a great job of recycling specific products from specific industries, but there are still a lot of things that are open-loop recycled, and a lot of things that end up wasted in landfill. For as long as we’re creating waste, there will always be more recycling to do.