Opportunities and challenges of closed loop recycling

Giulia Bernardi • 05.07.2018

Many resources are wasted in industrial production. Alternative economic systems such as closed loop recycling are based on the idea of organising production flows in cycles so that the energy and materials used are not lost, but can be re-used.

In Switzerland over 700 kilograms of municipal waste is generated per person every year. This includes household waste and waste from the textile and services industry. It amounts to approximately 60 tonnes over the average life expectancy of 82.7 years. Since the 1970s and 1980s recycling has increasingly come into focus both at a social as well as a political level. In 1986 the Federal Office for the Environment published its ‹Concept for Swiss Waste Management›, describing ways in which resources could be handled in a more environmentally friendly manner. While at that time merely 20 percent of annual waste was recycled, it’s now about 50 percent. Although a marked improvement can be identified, half of all resources are still being wasted. Regenerative systems such as closed loop recycling, which is a concept introduced in 1989 by David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner, are trying to counter this situation.  This economic system envisages that product flows should be organised in cycles so that resources are re-used as fully as possible. It is based on three principles, as explained by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

1) use of renewable resources,
2) careful use of energy and materials through efficient cycles,
3) avoidance of environmentally harmful consequences.

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy

Closed loop recycling is therefore a sustainable alternative to the linear economy, which continues to be the dominate principle of industrial production in most countries. In the essay ‹Linear Risks›, published in May 2018, the organisation Circle Economy, which is involved in the global establishment of the system, illustrates the disadvantages of the linear economy. According to Shyaam Ramkumar, Knowledge and Innovation Manager at Circular Economy, the linear economy is based on a wasteful approach because it regards natural resources as endless. Correspondingly it does not allow the energy and materials used to flow back into the production cycle and bases its profitability on the sale of short-term items, which have to be replaced again quickly by users. This approach is defined by Ramkumar as «take-make-waste» and he describes how such a model leads not only to disastrous consequences for the environment, but also for the existence of the relevant company, which would benefit from the savings in resources in the long term. This is also precisely what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates: If the manufacture of electronics in Europe for example would be organised in a closed loop recycling system, the industries involved would save resources with a value of EUR 540 billion by 2020.

Current technological progress would also favour Europe-wide use of closed loop recycling, as Shyaam Ramkumar explains in an interview with the online portal Circulate. Technological infrastructures – the so-called Internet of things – makes it possible to collect data and find out how resources could be used more efficiently, how systems could be better developed and how production processes could be optimised. One example of this is the Danish start-up Nordsense. By using sensors, which are fastened inside public waste containers, the young company receives data about how full they are. This enables the route of the municipal waste collectors to be adjusted and optimised, so that the workforce is deployed in a more targeted manner, less fuel is used and the wear and tear on vehicles is reduced.

The European Commission is also discussing a more sustainable handling of resources. In the final analysis in 2014 approximately 8 million tonnes of raw materials were processed into energy or materials, of which merely 0.6 million tonnes originated from recycling. In the ‹2018 Circular Economy Package› the Commission formulated targets for waste and closed loop recycling, which are supposed to be implemented during the next 10 to 15 years. This requires additional findings about the optimisation potential of existing systems to be identified; for example the package envisages supporting innovative technologies and corresponding research projects. Already in 2014 private investors invested about EUR 15 million in this field, creating 3.9 billion jobs.

The circular economy: from consumer to user

In Switzerland the ‹Green economy› initiative launched in 2011 promoted a more sustainable economy. The ecological footprint was to be drastically reduced by 2050. The popular initiative was rejected on 25 September 2016 with 63.6 percent of No votes. According to Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard, the initiative wanted to achieve too much in too short a time and she is advocating a sustainable economic system, whose establishment is taking place step by step, voluntarily and internationally. Beat Vonlanthen, member of the upper chamber of the Swiss Parliament from Freiburg, reacted with his postulate ‹Use the opportunities of closed cycle recycling. Check the tax incentives and other measures›, which came about during the autumn session in 2017. In this he requests that the targets regarding resource efficiency should continue to be pursued and the lessons should be learned from examples, which have already been put into practice in the European Union. Among the latter, he mentions a reduction in value added tax for repairs, as introduced at the beginning of 2017 in Sweden.

Also in this country an increasing number of companies are arguing against the throw-away mentality. At the beginning of the year IKEA launched the ‹Second Life› pilot project; discarded furniture can be returned to the Spreitenbach branch, whereby customers are reimbursed between 0 and 60 percent of the price in the form of a voucher.

A similar project was launched by H&M in 2017, encouraging customers as part of the ‹Bring it on› campaign to bring back old clothes, which are subsequently recycled. However, the charity Greenpeace points out that such models do not solve the actual problem – namely the excessive consumption of transient products –, on the contrary they create an additional incentive to purchase with vouchers. The fashion industry in particular should show greater commitment to long-term design and encourage consumers to wear their clothes for longer, instead of inciting them to return old textiles without a bad conscience. One may or may not share this opinion – and it doesn’t apply to everyone. However, it makes it clear that it is appropriate to pay more attention to one’s own way of life – because how long a shelf is used or a pullover is worn, is always in one’s own area of responsibility.

Photography: Shutterstock
Videos: Ellen MacArthur Foundation