Closing the Consumer Loop

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Posted June 14, 2016

A hundred years ago things were built to last.  The majority of products were made from natural materials, and most were reused or recycled at the end of their life. The waste stream mainly consisted of things like coal ash and food scraps. Being wasteful was frowned upon and society’s use of raw materials was, as a whole, far more circular than it is in the “throw- away” society of today.

Times have changed and now most things are made of synthetic materials.  Little of what is offered for sale is of lasting quality; products are designed to be obsolete in a few short years and are typically over packaged, often in non-recyclable materials. The waste stream of today is much larger and much more diverse than it was back in the good old days.

The world’s resource reserves are quickly diminishing, causing exploration and extraction costs to rise. As a result, we have seen numerous movements arise aimed at environmental preservation, resource conservation and waste reduction. The emergence of these movements has been accompanied by an array of corresponding terminology. For example, the expression “close the loop” and the term “closed-loop” are tossed around a lot in this day and age. But what do they really mean, and why is it important for us as consumers to have a better understanding of how we manage our waste?

If you were to ask an ecologist, they would probably describe a closed- loop system as one which does not exchange materials with the outside world, but rather uses them as resources within its own system.  For now, the only truly closed-loop system is mother earth herself.  However, some subsystems can model closed- loops and the concept is vital for our understanding of how to create a sustainable future.

Some of the best examples of these closed-loop subsystems are agricultural. They are implemented on farms, at wineries, and even in backyard gardens. Composting manure on farms has long been a common practice; compost is used to fertilize crops which in turn are fed to the livestock, thus starting the cycle anew. Many wineries have begun to irrigate using reclaimed waste water from the wine making process and utilize the grape pulp as fertilizer in their vineyards. Homeowners compost their household food waste and use it in the garden where more food is grown. Essentially, a closed loop is a continuous process that is beneficial.

“Open-loop” systems create waste or other byproducts. This waste typically degrades the environment in some way and is costly to dispose of.   In simple terms, an open loop is not really a loop at all – it’s a straight line. Resources start at one end and, through varying processes, are delivered to the other end with little or no use remaining.  Despite both the economic and environmental benefits of closed-loop systems, the vast majority of the modern world consists of open loops or countless crisscrossing lines.  Sadly, and often unknowingly, these lines cross over into our everyday lives and our personal habits.

The expression “close the loop” is most often associated with recycling.  The concept is a simple one.  We as consumers purchase a product or item. When the item is no longer of any use we toss it into our recycling. The item is then collected, processed, and turned into something new. The new product is then placed on a store shelf where we, the consumer, can purchase it and start the process over again, essentially creating a continuous loop.

While the recycling industry contains many subsystems that are steadily approaching the reality of closed-loop systems, the industry as a whole is still far from attaining this goal. Since the global recycling industry has come such a long way since its inception, you may be wondering why there are so many loops and why they haven’t been closed already.  Well, just like “closing the loop” by turning your food scraps into compost for your vegetable garden, the concept is simple enough. Recycling is basically the process of collecting post-consumer waste such as packaging and creating new products from the collected materials. “Closed-loop” recycling occurs when this process can be repeated indefinitely, such as with glass or aluminum.  However, other materials cannot be recycled indefinitely and the processes involved tend to be a bit more complicated. There are many cases where recycling certain materials only helps to prolong the life cycle of those materials, which inevitably find their way into a landfill. For example, soda bottles are most often recycled into items that will have only one more life, such as carpet. During the process of making carpet, plastics are broken down to obtain polymer fibers. Those fibers are then mixed with other materials and adhesives to complete the process.  Separating the base components of the materials after this has occurred is virtually impossible; therefore, after its lifecycle has expired carpet cannot be recycled.  This is an example of “open loop” recycling.   Using post-consumer recycled content in the carpet manufacturing process does reduce energy consumption and is a good step towards reducing an item’s overall footprint. However, in terms of sustainability, open loop recycling is inadequate.

For the recycling system to function properly, consumers, recyclers and manufacturers must work together to close the remaining loops and reclaim valuable resources from our waste stream. There are many reputable companies both large and small which have been shifting to more sustainable business practices and implementing their own closed loop systems; however, the vast majority have yet to follow suit.  A large number of these manufactures are not actively participating in the problem solving process because they bear no legal responsibility for the end life of their product and, most likely, have little financial incentive to do so.  Instead, the burden of dealing with such issues falls on local municipalities which generally don’t have much power to influence product innovations nor the funding to invest in sustainable solutions to capture and reuse the resources that are lost in the disposal process.

There’s a lot we as consumers can do to improve this system. Many of the solutions to break the linear consumption cycle are within our reach; they are literally as close as your wallet. As consumers we yield tremendous power with our pocket books, and every purchase you make supports something. Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, beyond the grocery list most people don’t put much thought into their routine trips to the super market. With a bit of extra time and thought we can make our purchases better reflect our values and, in doing so support the types of products and packaging we would like to see more of.  Shop at small businesses or your neighborhood farmers market whenever you can.  While shopping at larger retailers, check packaging to see if it is accepted by your local recycling program and look for products that are made from or packaged in recycled materials, then be sure to recycle them when the time comes.  By doing so, you create a greater demand for those products and influence manufactures to become more innovative as they attempt to meet that demand.  By making just a few small changes in our purchasing habits we help to save energy, conserve valuable resources and reduce waste. We also begin the process of bending the lines and closing our own personal loops.

The promise of a closed-loop society where everything can be recycled easily and endlessly remains in the distant future. However, individuals and companies alike are finding new and original ways to reuse, reduce and recycle their waste. It’s far from the ideal but it’s a very good start and each day we come closer to the reality of a better world and a more sustainable future.