What are the differences between circular and linear economies? With linear economics, items are used once. Everything in a linear economy is single-use. Circular economics improves upon that by taking items and using them as many times as possible. Closed-loop recycling goes hand in hand with a circular economy by reusing items instead of using them once and trashing them.
As an example, in a linear economy, you’d use a toothbrush for a few months and throw it away where it would take hundreds of years to deteriorate. In a circular economy, you’d take that same toothbrush and find new ways to use it. You could use it to clean dust from ventilation slats. You could use it to scrub build-up from inside a drain.
Now think about recycling as a whole. The goal of recycling is to keep items from going into a landfill where they break down over months and years or are blown into waterways that lead to lakes and oceans. Many things can be recycled rather than trashed. Paper, glass, cardboard, and plastics are examples of items that get recycled. Plastics are especially concerning as it can take hundreds of years for plastics to decompose in a landfill.
Why is Closed-Loop Recycling Vital Today?
Here’s a problem the nation faces. Per the EPA, almost 27 million tons of plastic were deposited in landfills in 2017. Only 29.1% of PET plastics and 31.2% of HDPE plastics were recycled. It’s estimated that around 8 million metric tons of plastic made it into the oceans in 2010. From there, fish and large aquatic animals ingest it or become trapped in it. You’ve seen the images of seals caught up in ropes and fishing lines. You’ve probably seen images of the contents of a dead whale’s stomach. It’s alarming. Recycling and reuse need to happen at much higher rates.
With closed-loop/circular economy recycling, you create a system where plastics and other recyclables are used, used again, and possibly recycled after dozens of uses. Once recycled, some of those plastics can be melted down and turned into something new. Other plastics aren’t able to be melted down, so attention must be on repeatedly finding new ways to reuse them.
In a closed-loop recycling plan, hundreds of water bottles recycled at a college university could be melted down and used to make plastic bags. Plastics stay out of the landfill and no new plastic must be created in order to make the bags. It’s a win-win situation for people and the environment.
Closed-loop recycling is used for everything from plastics to cardboard and glass to paper. If it can be recycled, the goal is to turn it into something new and keep the life cycle going. An old computer could be broken down into parts, used to repair other computers, and the rest can be melted down and reused. Wood chips from recycled tree branches and lumber mills could be used to provide energy to a town.
How a Closed-Loop/Circular Economy System Works
Here’s an example of a circular economy program for plastics. You purchase groceries and have them bagged in plastic bags. At home, you store those bags and reuse them as trash can liners or poop bags for pet waste. By reusing them, you’re avoiding purchasing new plastic bags. You get more than one use out of that one bag.
You could also collect those plastic bags with bread bags, vegetable wrappers, bubble wrap, plastic mailers, etc. They can all be recycled at once in a drop-off bin. Eventually, the bags and bags of plastics collected in drop-off bins are brought to a facility where they’re processed and used to make new items.
People can also help play a part in a circular economy system. Instead of buying a box of brand new kitchen bags, reuse the clear plastic bags that small appliances are wrapped in before placing them in the box or that shipping companies like FedEx or UPS place boxes into before dropping off a package on a rainy day. Find new uses for water bottles that can’t be recycled. Fill them with water, freeze them, and use them inside coolers to keep drinks and foods cold during a picnic or tailgate event.
Items That Are Made From Recycled Materials
Another way to help with a circular economy is by purchasing items made from recycled materials. What are some of the items made from recycled plastics, glass, etc.? Here are some examples.
If you’ve never heard of Rothy’s shoes, you should look them up. The company spins the plastic from water bottles and other marine plastics into strands of thread that are used to make their shoes and bags. They have flats, sandals, pull-ons, and sneakers for women and children.
DeFeet sells socks that are made from recycled polyester, nylon, and other recycled materials. They purchase recycled fiber materials from a company called REPREVE that has turned more than 21 billion water bottles into yarn and floss.
You’re probably familiar with Patagonia. The company is known for its durable, high-quality winter apparel. Many of Patagonia’s jackets, shorts, and fleece items are made from materials like recycled soda bottles. The Nano Puff is one of their most popular winter jackets and more than half of the materials in that jacket come from recycled materials.
Purchase a watch made from recycled wood from a company called WeWood. When you do, the company plants a tree somewhere in the world. Since the company was founded in 2010, it’s planted more than 600,000 trees.
Children’s toys made from recycled milk jugs are one possibility. Green Toys makes cars, trucks, boats, outdoor sandbox and garden toys, tub toys, Sesame Street toys, and more from recycled plastic bottles.
Even furniture companies are getting into items made from recycled materials. Noho, a New Zealand company, made the Noho Move chair from recycled fishing nets and carpeting.
What About Glass and Plastic That Cannot Be Recycled as Easily or at All?
Colored plastic and glass cannot be easily recycled because of the dyes within the glass or plastic. When dyes are added, melting them down doesn’t work as effectively as the heat needed to melt items burns the dye particles. Styrofoam cannot be recycled. Those items should be reused as much as possible. With some creative thinking, reusing plastic can be on a small scale or a much larger one.
A teacher in Vermont has his students help build a passive freezer reusing plastics that are harder to recycle. The walls were framed and lined with shredded styrofoam. Those walls were then lined with plastic soda bottles filled with saltwater. In the winter, air freezes the saltwater in the bottles keeping items stored in the room frozen well into the summer months. No electricity is needed.
The styrofoam you get in boxes that contain fragile or delicate items can be reused. You could use it to insulate basement walls or ceilings. Place it into gaps where the home’s overhang and basement wall meet.
That’s one idea of a grander project you could make to use up harder-to-recycle plastic materials. There are smaller projects, too. Drill holes in a plastic bottle, add dowels, and turn it into an outdoor bird feeder. Use glass jars to store grains, herbs, and spices you purchase in bulk. Baby food jars and old plastic food storage containers are great for storing small screws, nuts, and bolts. You can even screw the lid to a shelf and free up shelf space for tools, paint cans, and other items typically stored in your workshop or garage.
Properly recycling items you cannot use is the final step in a closed-loop recycling plan. Not sure how to make sure you’re engaging with a center that practices closed-loop recycling. Find out where to recycle all of your plastic items if there’s no way to reuse them. Recycle Nation’s personalized recycling resource gets you started. Enter your town’s ZIP code and the items you’re looking to recycle. You’ll have a list of nearby recycling centers in a matter of seconds.