Close the Loop

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he ideal sustainability strategy is to close input (resources) and output (wastes) streams so that nothing is wasted and everything is recycled. This strat­egy also means that nothing harmful will exit to the environment via air, water, land, and so on. To accomplish this goal, coordination be­tween multiple players (suppliers, manufactur­ers, sources, and sometimes retail locations and even customers) is usually required. However, developers and organizations can plan policy, such as take-back programs, and redesign processes and specifications for manufacturing and service in order to come near to this ideal.

Create Take-Back Programs

One common approach for creating a more closed-loop system is to implement a product take-back program. Product take-back pro­grams ensure that customers can take products and packaging back to the stores where they were purchased and that manufacturers will take these products back from retailers in order to recycle and reclaim whatever material they can. While this sounds easy, it requires a lot of coordination. Some materials, like packaging, can go straight into recycling programs, where and when they exist. But most products are complex enough that they require disassembly, and in some cases, special handling in order to retrieve as much useful material as possible. In addition, many components can be reused (such as ink cartridges and disposable cam­eras), but usually only by the original manufac­turer. These products often need to find their way all the way back to where they were creat­ed originally or at least to an authorized repair, service, or recycling center.

Take-back programs ultimately pressure man­ufacturers to rethink their end-of-life strategies and the outcome of their products. For exam­ple, when Germany began requiring retailers and manufacturers to take back all packaging and correspondingly started taxing garbage more steeply, customers became adept at strip­ping the packaging and extraneous materials, right there in the store, and carrying only the product and necessary accessories and instruc­tions home with them in their own reusable bags. This action saved them money since it cut down on their trash at home, and the up­stream pressure on disposing of this trash in­fluenced retailers and ultimately manufacturers to redesign their packaging to minimize mate­rial use. The system wasn’t without its unin­tended consequences (in some forests, trash was dumped in the middle of the night), but overall the effect on packaging was extremely beneficial (and remains so to this day). In fact, the packaging redesign (and material savings) that was necessary under these conditions was duplicated in places even without the same taxes and laws.

Take-back programs ultimately pres­sure manufacturers to rethink the end-of-life strategies and outcomes of their products.

Product take-back systems require integrated collection points, training for disassembling and identifying parts and materials, mecha­nisms for up – or down-cycling materials, reuse of components, separation of technical and biological nutrients, and safe disposal of any­thing left over.

In many countries, take-back programs are mandatory for certain products. These na­tions are driving the innovation for making this process efficient and effective—and all of us, ultimately, will benefit.

Updated: October 6, 2015 — 1:07 am