Metal and Plastic Rings

by Jen Clark

No doubt everyone has used a three-ring binder at least once in his or her lifetime. Yet little has changed in the binder’s design since the first patent for the device was filed in 1854.

According to the curator of the Early Office Museum in London, Henry T. Sisson of Providence, RI, filed patents for binders that would hold loose leaf paper, but the notebooks didn’t go to market until nearly 20 years later. Since then, various people have offered their take on binder design, but the original concept remains the same: a folder with spring-loaded clamps that will hold and organize documents.

Typically, the spring-loaded clamps, otherwise known as ring metals, are made of highly polished nickel-plated steel and are often circular or D-shaped, while others utilize rods to contain the paper. Some manufacturers now are offering plastic three-ring binder mechanisms in a variety of colors.

Spiral Binding, a James Burns Company in Totowa, NJ, is one such company. Their mechanisms are manufactured to hold standard, 3-hole, 8 1/2×11″ sheets and are sold without binder covers. The plain “spines” – available in both metal and plastic – allow customers to create their own custom binder covers or hold papers without the bulk of a cover.

Are plastics gaining ground?

Most definitely, says Michael Bossard, integrated marketing manager for Spiral James Burn. “Customers are always looking for ways to make their product stand-out. Plastic allows for more color choices, however, the great majority of what is sold is still metal.”

While plastic ring mechanisms have been around for a number of years, Bossard said Spiral James Burn has been offering them for about one year. The rings offered by Spiral James Burn come in blue, black, grey and white and offer the benefits of metal, as well as the versatility of color. Each ring functions like a traditional metal ring, snapping open in one smooth motion and locking when closed, he explained.

“The rings are manufactured with an ABS resin,” Bossard said. “When molded, it forms into a very durable product with a smooth finish. This material also ensures that the rings won’t rust and makes them archival-safe.”

There aren’t many cost benefits for choosing plastic over metal, he added. “The plastic mechanisms are more expensive, mainly because metal is mass-produced and essentially a commodity at this point in the product life-cycle.”

Does the size of the project affect the type of ring that should be used?

That really depends on the size of the project, Bossard said. “Ultimately metal can support more weight, so for particularly large projects metal will hold up better. If the application requires a larger ring size, then plastic would not be the best option.” When a customer has a larger ring size requirement that usually means there’ll be more paper in the binder and “more paper means more weight,” he said. “In any case, if the contents are heavy, this would be a case to consider using metal rather than plastic.”

Specialty Loose Leaf, Holyoke, MA, offers ring metal in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate consumer need. Tom Portenstein, the company’s vice president of sales, said everyone always strives to improve or reduce costs. “The new wave is a tendency to find alternative materials other than steel, but to date, we have not worked with plastics.”

He said most of the rings Specialty Loose Leaf produces are for large-capacity binders. “Plastic rings could not withstand the weight in these larger capacities. Steel offers greater strength and stability for a full range of ring binder options,” he added.

In addition to the standard round and D-shaped rings, Specialty Loose Leaf offers trapezoid, elliptical and arch rings. Round rings offer the easiest page-turn and accessibility, while D-rings accommodate more pages. Trapezoid and elliptical rings are similar in that they offer large-capacity storage, but pages turn slightly easier with the elliptical rings since there are no angles. The arch ring combines the performance of post-binder archiving with the ease of loose leaf updating and can hold over 1,200 sheets of paper.

“Many of the companies that we get repeat orders from prefer to produce their publications in a ring binder rather than a perfect bound or case bound book,” Portenstein said. “Loose leaf publications can be updated. Once the information in a bound book has changed, the entire book needs to be replaced.”

Although Sepcialty Loose Leaf maintains strong relationships with Asian ring suppliers, many of the rings used in its custom products are produced in-house. “From what I have been told, we are the only domestic binder manufacturer that can still make its own rings. Because we still manufacture a good amount of rings that are used in our products, project lead time is cut considerably since we don’t have to worry about lengthy shipping times from foreign suppliers,” Portenstein added.

There has been an explosion of environmentally friendly options for binders recently. What about the ring metal or plastic utilized in binders?

Spiral James Burn’s Bossard said most ring metals are made from recycled steel and are environmentally-friendly, but “we think it is important for customers to question the vendors and their green practices as much as the components of the product itself.” Spiral recently installed one of the largest solar energy systems in New Jersey at its corporate headquarters. “We have proactively implemented many environmentally-friendly practices,” Bossard explained.

Portenstein noted that many environmentally friendly materials now are going into binders. “One big feature that is an environmentally friendly option is the ability to screw in the mechanisms,” he said, adding, at Specialty Loose Leaf, that kind of specialty mechanism would need to be requested in the quote since it isn’t a standard feature. “Basically, you screw the mechanisms into the binder, which makes them reusable. When you’re finished with your binder, you can remove and reuse or recycle the mechanism.”

A company in Seattle, WA, was built on the concept of reusable ring metal for binders. Guided Products (formerly known as ReBinder), offers 17 fully recyclable three-ring binders to consumers. Its ReBinder was designed to tell a great story about its user, while giving customers the ability to reuse the binders. The binders even can be upgraded from project to project, while helping to sustain natural resources.

“Replacement covers can be purchased separately at a fraction of the cost of buying a new binder,” Brad Hole, chief sustainability officer, said.

What makes a reusable ring binder different from traditional three-ring binders?

“Unlike most binders, everything we do is American made, should cost the same as traditional products, should be available through the same catalogs and are made of responsible materials that don’t require a landfill,” Hole explained. “In addition, we have a proprietary labeling system that lets a user customize the ReBinder instantly, so when someone sees our products in use, it delivers a powerful story about the user,” he said. “It’s also nice that by removing two screws with a Phillips-head screw driver, the ring metal and cover can be separated and recycled.”

The removable ring metal has been a feature of the ReBinder product since the company’s inception in 2003, when Hole was working at a technology business. “Every year, a new vinyl binder would arrive from the different manufacturers we represented,” he said. “Soon, there was a collection of vinyl three-ring binders in our back room that we would reuse for accounting paperwork, but would eventually be headed to the landfill.”

After getting favorable reviews at the SHOPA (School, Home & Office Products) trade show, the company was formed and chose to launch with corrugated cardboard as the cover because it was the easiest to recycle. The company began production for three sizes of ReBinders in 2004, using standard ring metals with proprietary hardware. “An important factor was that the products would have to be durable and well-made with domestically sourced materials that could be easily recyclable,” he said.

Initial clients included those in the green building industry. “Green/LEED-certified building was just starting to break ground, and architects and builders were in need of our products to help convey their responsible message,” Hole said. “Delivering a proposal in a plastic or vinyl binder diluted that message.”

“The green building industry really helped get ReBinder products out there and in front of important decision makers,” he said. “Other industries were soon to follow.””

What is the proper way to recycle ringed binders, either plastic or metal?

Portenstein and Hole agreed that before recycling a binder, the ring metal should be removed, but offered different ideas on how to accomplish the task – especially if the metal is permanently fixed to the spine.

Portenstein suggests using an X-Acto™ knife or box cutter to slice the metal from the binder’s spine, but only if it is riveted or glued in place. “More than half of the binders out in the field are riveted and not screwed in,” he said.

ReBinder’s metal can be removed with a Phillips-head screw driver. “This makes both the cover and the ring metal recyclable,” Hole said. “Any facility or curb side recycling service that accepts ferrous metals can take ring metal, but it would have to be completely removed from the binder’s cover.”