Closing the Loop – from Outputs to Inputs
Traditionally we have worried about what comes out of our economy – solid wastes, persistent toxins, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ozone and so on. But increasingly focus is shifting to the sustainability of inputs – energy, water and raw materials – as these factors have a much bigger and immediate impact on business viability. Let’s face it, no water = no business, no energy = no business, no raw materials = no business.
You may not have noticed as there was a wedding on TV that weekend, but back in June, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency – the go to guy for the lowdown on energy for Governments – said that oil production may have peaked back in 2006. If you have filled up your car recently, the resulting bill was probably bad for your health – and energy prices are impacting on food and clothing prices – not good news in the current financial turmoil. Then we have China buying up rare earth metal supplies and various NGOs flagging up water stresses across the world.
So what’s the answer? Well, in nature, if a leaf falls off a tree it is recycled by worms, fungi and/or bacteria into nutrients for that tree or another plant, creating a cycle of nutrients. Same with water, carbon, nitrogen and other key materials – they all move in cycles. This is how nature’s processes have evolved over billions of years to be sustainable in a world of finite resources.
Carpet tile giants and green business pioneers InterfaceFLOR realised this some time ago. To become sustainable – their goal is zero impact on the environment – they obviously have to source sustainable raw materials. While they are using some natural materials to replace the traditional oil-based fibres, this would not cover all inputs. So they decided to use waste carpet as a raw material. While their ‘Evergreen’ carpet leasing service has failed to set the market alight (apparently accountants can’t handle carpet as a revenue cost rather than a capital cost – photocopiers and vehicles yes, but carpets no…), their ‘Re-entry 2.0’ carpet recycling facility has been a roaring success.
There are countless other opportunities for this kind of thinking. I am reliably informed that road sweepings have a higher concentration of platinum than that in naturally occuring ores due to all those catalytic converters in our cars releasing lots of tiny amounts. So people are working on the technology to ‘mine’ those materials from our streets and return them to the economy. Likewise there is great interest in ‘mining’ obsolete mobile phones for the precious metals within.
This requires a big shift in thinking away from outputs and towards inputs. Recovery and recycling are traditionally seen as waste management options rather than as sources of high quality raw materials – so quality suffers. The current prevalence of virgin raw materials means that such ‘secondary’ materials also tend to suffer from low volumes, high prices and lack of competition. Forward-thinking companies like Marks & Spencer are actively working to strengthen these new supply chains by increasing volumes, demanding higher quality of materials and encouraging a diversity of suppliers. The recycled polyester brolly pictured is a result of these efforts.
When stuff we rely on starts running out, we’ll thank these pioneers for their foresight.