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Recycling works: Closed loop manufacturing

March 12, 2009

Closed loop manufacturing is a civilised approach to industry’s often wasteful consumption of materials; a sensible and practical process for material selection based on its reusability.

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Closed loop manufacturing can only be appropriately applied to companies that are reusing the materials from their products for the same or possibly even greater purpose when reclaiming product. Office chairs that are collected, stripped and have their components turned into park playground equipment, for instance, are participating in down-cycling not closed loop manufacturing.

There are rare occasions where companies actually manage to take products and up-cycle them, namely make them more valuable and less likely to enter the waste stream than they were in their previous life.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the academic platform on which closed loop manufacturing gains its rationale. LCA provides insight into all aspects of the environmental footprint of a product, from where its raw materials are extracted, to the level of freight required for all components used, and the biodegradability and reusability of a product’s components.

LCA was a fundamental tool in the development of the Steelcase Think chair, ensuring that the following sustainability improvements – as articulated by Steelcase – were made to the product: reducing the use of hazardous materials, reducing waste and energy consumption during manufacturing, limiting shipping distances, providing minimal and recyclable packaging, maintaining user health during use and recycling the product following use.

One of the cleverest translations of LCA into commercial practice has been the Cradle to Cradle certification scheme established by MBDC (founded by William McDonough and Michael Braungart), which has in its list of graduates some of the US’s leading interior furnishing suppliers: Herman Miller, Shaw Industries Group, Steelcase Inc and various other surface covering technologies also receive Cradle to Cradle certification.

In true US style the certification process has been translated into the extension of a commercial expertise that McDonough and Braungart practise together and separately via a number of organisations and companies.

In Australia there is no one single company that has become synonymous with the sustainability certification process. It is a push that is being shared, by government agencies, designers and manufacturers.

Seen within the larger context of good design and smart sustainable practice the primary concern should be to specify intelligent, long lasting products that will rarely require replacement due to wear, technological or aesthetic obsolescence. In a way, this goes against some of the commercial imperatives of design firms looking to encourage a major new fitout for a corporate premises. Procuring more expensive, beautifully made pieces with strong product stewardship may cost more in the short-term, but in depreciation terms it saves over time. This is the equation faced in many areas of sustainable practice.

Identifying the companies that are going to simultaneously deliver functionality, a good aesthetic and excellent product stewardship (which leads to closed loop practices) will require some research. Specifiers may be required to call and ask manufacturers directly what policies they have for the collection, disassembly and reuse of materials in their products?

The kind of questions designers are asking is largely being determined by the green star certification program, run by The Green Building Council of Australia. The ‘Green Star – Interior Office Rating Tool’ has quickly become the industry standard.

The demand to be green star certified is coming from two directions: companies want to be known as good corporate citizens and are pushing the demand for five- and six-star green rated buildings down to their designers, who in turn make these demands of their suppliers. Equally, the general public is becoming more aware of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the potential adverse effect they have on indoor air quality. The highly skilled members of the workforce will often see a pleasant working environment as a contributing factor to where they choose to work.

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The Green Building Council of Australia declares that, “There are now 58 green star certified projects in Australia!” The process of achieving a high star rating (five-star rating delivering a recognition of achieving ‘Australian Excellence’ and six-star rating the tag of ‘World Leader’) is intensive and involves the filling out of extensive compliance forms. Adherence is promoting a professional practice all of its own: ‘Green Star Accredited Professionals’ can be a guide through the various guidelines for green design and using one brings two reward points in and of itself.

Companies such as leading Australian furniture manufacturer Schiavello have brought sustainability consulting as an in-house service they offer clients. The knowledge they have focused toward their own manufacturing process is now been turned outward to industry generally. In promoting their ability to coordinate an environmental program second on the list of benefits is “reduce costs due to improvements in environmental, waste and energy management”. From the perspective of a manufacturer like Schiavello such strategies provide a double win: use of virgin materials is reduced, new products are made for less even if this is achieved over a longer time-frame and they achieve national and international sustainability standards, placing them in a rarefied group of high performers in their field, which is great for marketing.

The ‘Aero’ workstation, by Iken, is an interesting example of a product that has a great amount of detail focused around design for disassembly, recycling and repairing broken components. Although issues have been found with some aspects of the embodied energy and recycled content in some of the components in the product, the company is already addressing these concerns. Aero presents a viable option for specifiers looking for a workstation that has sensibly incorporated design for longevity and the reclaiming of materials.

Woven Image is a leader in closed loop sustainable manufacturing and product stewardship. The EcoPanel product in future will be entirely delivered from reclaim and reuse strategies. Currently the company is accumulating masses of off-cuts from its upholsterer clients and is determining the use for these off-cuts within a closed loop system.

Again, like Schiavello, this strategy makes sense for Woven Image on a number of fronts: it reduces its requirement for completely new materials and places the company at the forefront of sustainable (marketable) manufacturing practice.

Design and manufacture for disassembly and reuse at a high level is possibly one step towards manufacturers engaging their clients in lease rather than sales agreements. The benefits of recapturing the materials to the manufacturer, and the assurance of high quality product for the client, is a good system of mutual returns. This is the model already deployed by Fuji Xerox Australia for its photocopiers. It is also becoming popular within other sectors, such as Flexicar – the ‘time share’ model of car use. This model of manufacturing and service delivery is a way of essentially reducing how much energy we commit to making products from scratch. The more a specifier demands this of their suppliers the wider this important sustainability trend will become.

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