There’s a quiet revolution happening in kitchens across the country. Over the last few years, foodies of all stripes have become more conscious of food waste. Whether for environmental, humanitarian, or economic reasons, people are trying to waste less and use only as much as they need.
Unfortunately our country’s waste problem extends beyond the kitchen. Each year Americans produce approximately 300 million tons of trash, which sits in ever-expanding landfills for years (if it ever decomposes at all). There’s a pressing need to figure out how we as a society can produce less waste and stop overtaxing our natural resources.
As it turns out, it might just require a different way of thinking. Here’s how a closed-loop mindset can help the planet.
What Is a Closed-Loop System?
By definition, a closed-loop system is one in which every component (be it manufacturing, food, or anything else) is recirculated within that same system for as long as possible. The ultimate goal is to reuse, recycle, or biodegrade all materials involved so as to produce zero waste.
Composting is a great example of a closed-loop system. When a person cooks veggies, for example, they cut off the parts they want and then compost the inedible scraps. That compost can be used to grow new food, which will produce more scraps to be composted, and so on. It’s a system in which little (if any) waste is produced. Instead all the components are put to good use.
Another example is recycling, in which used items that could have ended up in landfills are instead converted into usable goods. Materials such as glass and aluminum can be recycled over and over again, meaning manufacturers who rely on these materials could theoretically keep making products without ever using virgin materials.
Many companies are looking to close the loop for both environmental and economic reasons. For example, capturing excess heat released during a manufacturing process and using it to power the plant both reduces the need for resources outside the system and cuts costs.
The opposite of a closed-loop system is (surprise!) an open-loop system, in which any waste that’s created by the system is discarded rather than put to use. It can help to visualize an open-loop system as linear: At every stage of a product’s life cycle, waste is released into the world. In contrast, a closed-loop system is more circular. Byproducts at every stage of the process are recycled and/or reincorporated into the product’s life cycle.
The Benefits of Closed-Loop Systems
After looking at the examples above, it probably isn’t surprising that closed-loop systems yield substantial benefits, such as:
- Reduced waste piling up in landfills
- Reduced pollution of our air, water, and land
- Reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions (i.e., less contributions to climate change)
- Reduced reliance on virgin materials (i.e., less strain on our natural resources)
- Economic savings
In a fully closed-loop society, industrial systems would be overhauled so everything could be made without the use of toxic materials or processes and all products could be reused, recycled, or composted.
It’s a lofty goal, sure, but it’s not that outrageous if everyone commits to doing their part.
How to Apply Closed-Loop Thinking to Everyday Life
Closed-loop thinking may seem like an intellectual concept, but it can be incorporated into daily life in a few concrete ways. Help close the loop (and reduce your environmental impact) by adopting the following practices:
Recycle whenever possible.
It's probably one of the easiest steps you can take—especially when more and more of the products you already buy might be in recyclable packaging. Glass, aluminum, paper, and most plastics are all recyclable.
Buy products that give something back.
These days, plenty of companies have charitable efforts or donate portions of their proceeds to a variety of causes. From a watchmaker who plants trees to a beauty company that helps fight poverty—there are literally thousands of do-gooders from which you can choose.
Before purchasing a product, consider where and how it was made.
And what you’ll do with the item once you’re done with it. If the product’s life cycle entails a lot of waste, consider an alternative.
Purchase products made without the use of hazardous substances.
This allows for safe recycling and/or biodegradation.
Be selective about the companies you support.
Look for companies that are working to reduce waste, use sustainable materials, and adopt closed-loop thinking. And advocate that those who aren’t doing so commit to doing their part. There have never been more options than today: Companies like Patagonia and Everlane have paved the way for sustainable direct-to-consumer brands like Loomy for rugs, Buffy for comforters, and Parachute for bedding.
The Bottom Line
Whenever possible, reduce, reuse, and recycle. By applying these guidelines to your purchasing decisions, you can help keep the planet healthy for future generations. Not only that, but we’re betting discussions of closed-loop systems make for scintillating dinner conversation.
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