Recycling as a concept and recycling in real-time are very different things. In principle, recycled products should go back into the system as raw materials. In reality, however, they often end up in landfills. Closed-loop manufacturing seeks to change that.
To keep recyclable waste from entering landfills, we need to create a watertight system that manages how products are handled at every stage of their life cycle – from pre-production all the way to disposal. In other words, we need to stop seeing production and waste management as two separate processes. Which is essentially the concept of closed-loop manufacturing.
Linear is not the solution.
From the very first Industrial Revolution, our production systems have taken a linear route. Raw material has been mined from the earth and converted into products using energy and fuel. These products have been put into everyday use until it’s time to discard them. Fresh raw material has then been sourced for the next product line, which in turn has ended up as waste.
Over time, the flaws of this open-ended system have become increasingly clear. On the one hand, we’re consuming the planet’s limited resources like there’s no tomorrow. At the same time, we’re letting go of perfectly usable materials and components by assuming that they’ve run out their time. Not to mention the literal mountains of waste that are piling up on our land, clogging our oceans, and throwing our ecosystems off balance.
The linear approach to production can only head towards environmental disaster. But for our waste problem to go away for good, we can no longer rely on emergency measures. Instead, we need to actively move from the linear model to a closed-loop one.
Who are the closed loop manufacturers in town?
Capsule coffee manufacturer Nespresso has laid the foundation for what could soon become a global recycling system for aluminum coffee capsules. The process is simple. Users of Nespresso’s single-serve coffee capsules can order recycling bags for their used coffee capsules. Nespresso in turn partners with local courier services to pick up these bags, and with local recycling facilities to process the collected capsules. It separates aluminum from the coffee grounds, recycles it and sends it back into the production chain. The coffee grounds go into compost pits to create fertilizer.
Nespresso’s initiative is particularly significant because it deals with single-serve coffee capsules – a product that large numbers of people use (and discard) every single day. For closed-loop manufacturing to really make a difference, it needs to seep into similar industries producing consumer goods. Which is what has started to happen, thanks to some excellent initiatives by leading companies.
Battery maker Energizer has started setting up a circular model of production, by launching its EcoAdvanced batteries that are made using 4 percent recycled material. On paper this may not sound like a lot, but what’s happening on ground is promising. Instead of harvesting virgin zinc and cobalt for every new battery that it produces, Energizer is reclaiming these materials from used batteries. To encourage customers to buy these sustainable batteries, the company has also designed them to last longer than their predecessors.
Fashion, an industry that is notorious for its environmental impacts, has also warmed up to the idea of closed-loop manufacturing. Leading brands like Patagonia and H&M have jumped on the bandwagon, making recyclable garments designing new clothes from discarded fabrics. New brands like Evrnu have tailored all their efforts around reusing discarded textiles.
So why isn’t everyone a closed-loop manufacturer already?
At the moment, it’s mainly because the numbers don’t add up. Well designed and functional systems that facilitate closed-loop manufacturing haven’t gone mainstream in most industries. Which means that collecting waste and harvesting raw material from it is still a pretty expensive exercise.
Of course, companies like Nespresso and H&M are doing a great job of changing the situation. Their initiatives address the problem at a crucial stage – when products are about to be discarded by their users. Recycling is part and parcel of production in closed-loop manufacturing. By making it easy for customers to recycle stuff like used coffee capsules, old garments or plastic waste, manufacturers can remove a major obstacle from their sustainable production plans.
Implementing closed-loop manufacturing is relatively simple in industries that use plastics and polymer composites for production. Accessible technologies for recycling plastic waste into granulates or 3D printing filament have already been around for years. Both established manufacturers and new startups can make use of these technologies to reduce or even prevent wastage in their production chains.
Going forward, the disruptive innovations of Industry 4.0 will in all likelihood open up even more possibilities in closed-loop manufacturing. In partnership with carbon negative efforts, they might even get us to a point where we can start replenishing the planet’s resources.
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