US & Global Economic Impact Analysis and Forecasts

Freedonia analysts and economists are sharing their insights on how major events are impacting different parts of the US and global economies.

Closed Loop Manufacturing vs. “Downcycling”…How Should We Best Use Recycled Materials?

Closed loop manufacturing is often prioritized and seen as the gold standard in sustainability. This process bring waste back into where it came from so that waste products return to make the product again and ultimately nothing (or almost nothing) is really wasted. However, there are limits to recyclability without losing performance – strength, flexibility, etc.

Perhaps recycled content has more environmental impact if used in a new way. For instance, recycled plastic bottles, bags, and film can also be made into things like pipe, decking, fencing, furniture, and fleece; and recycled glass containers can be used in the cement manufacturing process and to make countertops. This is often called “downcycling” as the materials are used to make something else rather than to make more of what it was. The process had gotten a bit of a bad rap as closing the loop held our fascination…but is that correct?

Is there greater impact on protecting limited resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions if recycled content (plastic and otherwise) is used to “green up” a long-lived product like construction materials instead of in something that has a limited lifespan and can be made more sustainable in other ways (e.g., packaging)?

This is the argument in policy circles as they consider recycled content mandates or extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs. If there is a finite amount of PCR (post-consumer recycled content) – and there is – what is the best use of it?

The goal of both is ultimately to incentivize bringing more waste into recycling streams so that more materials are available for reuse and kept out of landfills. But sustainability is multilayers…reduce what you can…reuse what can’t be reduced…recycle what can’t be reduced or reused.

In the end, this might be why there is an increasing trend toward EPR. These programs allow for more flexibility in making sure the recycled content use is optimized and companies are still incentivized to reduce material use overall as well.

Freedonia analysts continue to examine ways various industries are maximizing their resources and minimizing their waste, while keeping in mind current limitations on available recycled content and trends in municipal and private waste management along with consumer participation.  

For more information and discussion of opportunities, see The Freedonia Group’s extensive collection of off-the-shelf research, particularly our series of studies in the Packaging, Construction, and Consumer Goods catalogs, with analysis covering Recycled Plastics in Packaging, Decking, Plastic Pipe, Fencing, Countertops, Global Cement, and more. Freedonia Custom Research is also available for questions requiring tailored market intelligence.