Close the Loop for a More Sustainable Future

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Tompkins Weekly – May 17, 2010
by Wendy Skinner
Sustainability advocates talk a lot about “closed loop” systems. For example, a factory might use its waste output to fuel its manufacturing process. A business might recycle unsold inventory to create new products. Farmers have long used composted animal waste to fertilize crops that in turn feed the animals, and some homeowners compost food waste to enrich the backyard garden where more food is grown. Those are closed loops.

An “open loop” system creates waste or byproducts for which there is no use. Getting rid of unwanted byproducts usually costs money, degrades the environment, or both. Despite the economic efficiency of a closed loop system, most modern-day production is open loop.

Most of how we live our personal lives is open loop, too. The typical personal consumption loop is so open, it resembles a flat line.

At the start of this linear consumption system is the producer—often distant and unknown. Even if we tried, it’s hard to know about the materials, processes, or worker conditions that go into most of what we buy.

Next on the line is transportation. Goods imported to the US are steadily on the increase, and they all have to be shipped to our coasts and then transported inland. There is no way to recapture the fossil fuels that are burned up to transport these products. Next come storage, display, and sales operations—all extending the flat line.

We consumers come next, and even if we have good intentions, overwhelming forces are in charge. Much of what is offered for sale is not of lasting quality, comes packaged in non-recyclable materials, or is designed to be technologically useless in a few years. Our fleeting ownership does little more than temporarily divert the products on their rapid journey to the landfill.

The flat line doesn’t end at burial in a mega-dump, of course. About a third of waste bound for landfills is packaging. Much of this is plastic, which can take up to half a millennium to degrade. Even ostensibly compostable materials are sealed in plastic bags so that breakdown takes decades.

The sustainable solution to flat-line consumption involves looking, in both directions, beyond our relative millisecond of personal possession. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, shopping is fraught with peril. Before we buy, we ought to think: Where did this come from? Did its creation use up energy, cause environmental damage, or endanger human health? What will I do with it? Is my ownership serving any purpose other than causing further damage?

Ways we can personally close loops—or at least bend the flat lines—include composting, buying locally made and grown products, buying second-hand, reusing and recycling, shunning products with excess packaging, and buying high-quality durable goods from responsible vendors.

Of almost shocking rarity is the idea making things ourselves from what we have in our homes. Toys come to mind. Ninety percent of children’s playthings are now made in Asia or other countries, and the safety of these items is often in question. A handmade toy, created at home from safe materials, not only closes a loop, it shows respect for our children and our children’s planet.

Each time we close a loop in our personal lives, we influence a safer, more satisfying future. Maybe we should all make a toy for some kid we love. At a time when an apocalyptic world’s end is equally plausible and unacceptable, a handmade toy is a pretty good symbol of hope.

Wendy Skinner is the Coordinator of SewGreen,

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