The buzz phrase "closed-loop cycle" has been popping up more and more in mainstream culture and it pleases me to no end. Why? The more we become aware of this concept, the faster we can live more sustainably room-by-room in our homes, and then ultimately work towards curbing climate change. This is because the principles behind closed-loop cycles are inherently better for our health, the earth's wellbeing, and keep us more connected to our local ecosystems.
So this begs the question, what exactly is a closed-loop cycle?
What is a closed-loop cycle?
In nature, there are closed loop cycles within every niche of an ecosystem. A closed-loop cycle is a system where nothing is wasted, only returned to the cycle itself to sustain and further strengthen it.
The most basic understanding of what a closed-loop cycle does in an ecosystem is decomposition. All animals and plants die, their bodies are broken down by soil microbes, bugs, and scavengers. The decaying matter feeds the soil, which in turn strengthens the soil to continue producing plant matter that feeds herbivores and omnivores, and those animals then feed carnivores. Once an animal or plant dies, the cycle begins all over again. Another wonderful example is the closed-loop cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals. Animals breathe in oxygen as energy and exhale carbon dioxide as waste. Plants are the inverse, completing the loop as they take up our carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Even though we are separate species, we complement each other and are integral to the other’s survival. When you start to look for closed-loop cycles in nature, you find them everywhere.
The closed-loop cycle in nature is balanced, it wastes nothing, and in turn, makes the cycle resilient. Life on earth was created and sustained within closed-loop cycles, think of it as our default mode. Everything that an organism takes over its lifetime is ultimately returned to the earth to sustain the cycle indefinitely. Without this law of return, we wouldn’t have soil to grow food with nor would we have oxygen to breathe. The closed-loop cycle perspective allows us to see our actions and habits within our homes as a part of a whole.
Where do things come from and where do they go when they are done?
Nurturing and maintaining this holistic mindset is the first and most important step using closed-loop cycles in your everyday life.
The Cycle (or lack thereof) Of Consumerism, Meet The Lamp
In reality, this is only a fraction of the story of the lamp. At the dawn of lamp, there were raw materials that had to be sourced. The plastic base of the lamp was derived from crude oil, shipped across a number of miles, and then refined in a factory. The light bulb was produced by heating a continuous ribbon of glass that is then moved along by a conveyor belt and blown into separate bulbs. The lampshade is made of paper that, at its beginning, was raw wood that had to be harvested and transported to a factory, where it was chipped, pulped, refined, and finally pressed into paper. All these steps happen before you even pull out your credit card. The environmental impact of oil rigging, the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transporting, the treatment of the workers involved, and even the store where it was sold at are all a part of the lamp’s story.
Now let’s dive into the epilogue of the lamp. We are at the point where you’ve decided to move onto another lamp, or this lamp no longer works. Let’s skip past the multiple trips that this lamp may take to Goodwill or the Salvation Army as it goes from one lamp owner to another, and get to the end of its life cycle. This final step is the biggest issue with our friend the lamp: there is no end to its life cycle. Our lamp will ultimately wind up in a landfill. The crude oil used to make the plastic will never return to being crude oil because that plastic will never decompose. Even if the lamp could decompose, most landfills do not allow for proper decomposition based on their design, rather, landfills preserve and mummify our garbage. So now our lamp is a mummy lamp and will never be able to contribute to a closed loop cycle. Thus, in buying this lamp, we have taken something from our planet that we can never return.
These un-closable cycles are happening every single second in our current economy. Although consumers are a tiny piece of the whole when it comes to un-closable cycles, we drive the entire machine. If the demand for products that cannot contribute to closed loop cycles went away, companies would have to stop making them. If we all stood up and said with our wallets, “don’t make it, unless it can ultimately return to where it came from and not wind up in a landfill,” companies would be forced to listen, or they would go out of business. By creating and producing only what we can return to the earth, a holistic economy would be a boon to our health, our local communities, and our planet.
What is even more imperative than lessening our demand for products that cannot close the loop is stopping our disruption of the most critical closed-loop cycle in nature.
What Happens Closed Loop Cycles Are Broken?
On a smaller scale, the disruptions are happening in our watersheds as nitrate runoff from industrial farming pollutes our drinking water. Another sign of disruption is when neonicotinoids (a type of pesticide) make our most beloved songbirds lose their way during seasonal migration. When excess sulfates from mining operations enter our rivers and kill off populations of native fish is yet another warning. When the acidity of our oceans rise due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and cause a massive die off in the great barrier reef has been yet another consequence of our inability to close the loop. One of the most alarming examples of the desperate need to close the loop is when the UN stated that if we continue farming conventionally, all our fertile topsoil will be gone in 60 years.
Human consequences run rampant as companies continue to prioritize profit over people. Our increase in the demand for ocean fish, thanks to the Mediterranean diet, has led to human enslavement on Thai fishing boats. As we put the responsibility of growing the food we eat into fewer and fewer hands, the risk for foodborne illness rises and outbreaks leave thousands hospitalized and hundreds dead. As the use of glyphosate (RoundUp) in agricultural systems increases, so does cancer rates, despite the fact that multiple studies show that this chemical is a known carcinogen. In 2018, it’s estimated that 1 in 45 children will be diagnosed with autism, although at least some of this increased rate can be attributed to our medical community’s willingness to diagnose now more than in the past, this is still a sharp rise compared to a diagnosis rate of 1 in 2,500 in the 1970s. Many recent studies are linking the major uptick of untested industrial chemicals in our everyday environment to the rise in autism, concluding that we don’t fully understand how they interact with young children’s microbiome and brain.
We have to look at these examples, large and small, and understand that we are a part of a whole. Our economy and consumer behaviors do not exist in a vacuum. These imbalances that occur in nature and humankind are all traced back to industry led by human consumption. The sooner we can curb our consumption and shift how we live in our homes, the sooner we have a chance of saving and preserving our health, our humanity, and our planet.
The Conscious Consumer Method
So how do we do better as consumers? How can we create mass shifts in industry that reward companies that are working towards sustainability, putting people first, and preserving our ecosystems?
Below is a free guide I created to help you navigate better purchasing decisions in the store and work towards incorporating more closed-loop cycles in you everyday life, I call it the Conscious Consumer Method.
It's a simple and effective way to think about more conscious consuming and I use it every single day to do better by my health and the health of the earth.
Are you ready to learn the Conscious Consumer Method?
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Favorite Books of 2021
2. Braiding Sweetgrass
3. As Long As Grass Grows
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. The Zero Waste Solution