Working Towards Closed-Loop Systems

Working Towards Closed-Loop Systems

by: Ayelet Golz (From May 2013 Newsletter)

Can you imagine a world where products are endlessly recycled or byproducts are used eternally? Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Well, it’s paradise that is slowly, but surely coming true with closed-loop systems that are already out there.

In a lot of industries, creating something new is the norm. But as support grows for more environmentally-conscious products and as it becomes more costly for companies to deliver products from scratch, closed-loop productions are looking better and better. Closed-loop systems are changing everything from computers to fashion to candy wrappers. It’s all about taking waste and making it useful again.

First Mass-Produced Upcycled Clothing Collection

An Estonian company has become the first to produce mass quantities of clothing made from leftover pieces of fabric. The Reet Aus collection is working with a garment factory in Bangladesh that until this upcycled collection was wasting 10-30% of fabric used in producing 56 million garments per year. That is a huge amount of waste diverted into usable items of clothing.

On the other end of the spectrum, local organizations like Grow NYC are taking a part in fashion upcycling and recycling. According to their site, the average New Yorker throws out 46 pounds of clothing and textiles each year. 46 pounds! They list places where people can recycle their clothing and textiles, such as farmer’s markets. Some of the recycled clothing is reused as clothing; others are recycled into rags, insulation, and more.

Making something from recycled or upcycled materials can be tricky though. Fabric is weakened when recycled and often the dyes in the original fabrics stay dyed when recycled, affecting the color of the end product. It just goes to show that a closed-loop system isn’t as easy as taking something, shredding it, and remaking it. There’s a long process of testing and experimenting involved.

When creating your own closed-loop system, you may encounter unexpected issues along the way, too. You need to be patient with yourself and your product, and think creatively about different ways to use the recycled material. It may not be your initial plan that works, but stay open-minded to the different inventions that may come from it.

Hewlett Packard’s Recycling Program

HP began reusing its printer cartridges in 2001 and it’s grown ever since. In 2011, according to The Guardian’s article on the program, HP recycled and reused 28.6 million pounds of plastic in its products. HP estimates in the same article that it has kept out 511 million items out of landfills over the course of the program, too. The cartridges used to be shredded all together and now they’re carefully picked apart and sorted before shredding. While HP doesn’t have a complete closed-loop system, it’s taking a step in the right direction and as it sees the success of the program, the company would be more likely to take recycling steps in the future.

Just like with the fashion industry, putting a recycling system in place to start closing loops requires testing and trying out different methods before it can be effective.

Wal-Mart and TerraCycle

Although Wal-Mart generally does not get much kudos for being a socially responsible corporation, it has started a pilot program to send packaging waste to TerraCycle. TerraCycle is a company that turns candy wrappers, plastic water bottles, cheese packaging, cell phones, and much much more into innovative products. Wal-Mart set up a trash collection for 28 different types of trash to send on to TerraCycle.

Wal-Mart saw that the products they were selling were creating mountains of waste and is going in the right direction to reduce that waste and provide products at the same time. One great lesson from this example is the need to look at your or other’s byproducts, figure out how to reuse them, and partner with them to create something innovative.

Looking at Your Waste

You may think that you’re creating only the end product, but what about the scraps leftover? Or the packaging of the tools or materials you use? Or the reams of paper you recycle? Those are all byproducts of your system and can be used by others. The key to it is thinking creatively about what was thought of as waste before. Any time you put something in the trash or recycling bin, you should think about what other uses that waste could have.

Another thing that you might not have considered was: can you get byproducts from other companies or organizations and turn them into an innovative new product? The best way to find out is to call in on local producers and manufacturers to see what their “waste” looks like. There might be a mutually beneficial relationship you can build with a local factory or producer in your neck of the woods.

My last example comes from a local artisan in Ecuador. She’s created beautiful, upcycled bags and trash cans from thick plastic ties used on plants and flowers. Those ties would have been thrown in the trash and sent to a landfill if she hadn’t cultivated the relationships she did. Even though she’s a small operation, she’s connected with other small businesses to fill a need: reuse plant ties into a work of art.  Big companies aren’t the only ones who can do closed-loop systems; everyone can!

Author’s bio:

Ayelet Golz is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing manager living in Quito, Ecuador, until July. Ayelet has been passionate about eco-friendly, sustainable, and fair trade products and services for quite a while. In the upcoming months, she will be helping to launch an innovative new site and app that will help inventors and innovators better capture, develop, and secure their ideas. Stay tuned for more news on that!

Below is a picture of a purse that Ayelet submitted to show what is possible for products that could be created using closed-loop systems.

Source: 2013 May Newsletter