What is closed-loop Circular Economy'?
5-10 minute read
'Of all the stones hurtling through space,
Planet Earth is the only one known to support life'
- Factorylux mission
It's a planet-sized mess that affects everyone, but if you're an architect, designer or building engineer you're probably even more aware of the scale of the problem.
Your commercial specifications are generally less impulsive and more consequential than consumer purchases, plus your training gives you greater insight into how products are made.
How did we get here?
As awareness has grown, the idea that manufacturers should be held accountable for the waste they originally produced, has gained traction.
This is a terrifying situation for waste-producing corporations everywhere, especially in the lighting industry. Architectural lighting is dominated by corporations who produce high volumes of complex waste and have prospered financially from decades of lax regulation.
The standard corporate response is PR (public relations) strategies that embrace and diffuse this narrative. Waste-producing corporations everywhere, from the world's top plastic polluter (Coca-Cola) downwards, have co-opted the term ‘Circular Economy’ for this purpose. It's short and snappy, with great recall.
The term ‘Circular Economy’ has been around since the 1970s, when Dr. Walter Stahel began championing circularity. The general concept is obviously amazing but in reality it's a vague term that means everything and nothing, at the same time. It's a marketers dream.
You'll see it plastered across visual branding and marketing communications, in the form of badges, logos, colour palettes, event sponsorships and so on. Everyone's doing Circular Economy now - right?
Wrong! You don't need Factorylux to tell you that PR-led transformations tend to be superficial transformations.
Big marketing campaigns can be managed by small digital teams who pivot in a heart beat. The physical world of manufacturing (supply chains, production lines, tooling, technical files, etc) is a very different place. Even a small change to a product or process is complex and time-consuming to execute (we know this too well).
The capital expenditure of factories (what it costs to build and fill them with machinery) is mega-bucks, which often take years to recoup. It's one reason why complex manufacturing, like architectural lighting, is dominated by corporations. They exist to create shareholder 'value' 🤑 through big, long-term bets on products or processes with strong market demand and good profitability.
You won't be surprised to discover that, despite the revolution in ‘Circular Economy’ branding, lighting manufacturers continue to churn out more or less *exactly* the same products and processes as they always did.
Take a look at their catalogues to see this for yourself. The environmental footprint of the high-volume ‘bread and butter’ products which underpin lighting industry waste is basically unchanged. Regular lighting track, for example, is more or less the same as the 1960’s (when it was first invented), its footprint might even be a little worse, as the cost of injection moulded plastics decreased.
How is it possible to say one thing but do another?
In the early 2000's all of this came together as ‘WEEE’ (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) a Europe-wide ‘settlement’ between corporations and governments to establish new recycling infrastructure.
WEEE is just an ‘open loop’ recycling program, that happens to be in Europe, similar schemes exist all over the world.
The concept isn’t literally a ‘landfill tax’ (the government don’t keep the money) but it’s similar enough to be widely known and regarded as that. A very small mandatory charge per kg of finished product is levied on manufacturers today, to cover the electrical / electronic waste of tomorrow.
This money is given to 3rd party companies who’s challenge is to collect 100% of waste products and sort / convert 100% of them back to single raw materials, such as steel, aluminium, glass, the seven different ‘SPI Codes’ for plastic etc.
Converting waste product back to single raw materials is a magical and beautiful concept. The UK lighting industry gives it legs it with strategic PR investments to publicise the idea that open loop recycling is Circular Economy. Industry spaces, such as LinkedIn, trade shows, magazines, conferences and the like are now absolutely dominated by this idea.
From a purely marketing perspective, it's an incredible success, the agencies have been very effective.
Meanwhile, back in the real word…
The reality of open loop recycling is very different. Even according to their own figures, after 20+ years the percentage of European ‘waste’ that genuinely becomes usable ‘raw materials’ is closer to 0% than 100%.
From a planetary perspective, it’s even worse. Decades of value engineering and marketing led trends in architectural lighting left us with products that are a mess of plastics, paints, powder coatings, adhesives, resins and permanent fixings. An increasingly large range of industrial chemicals are present in what were traditionally simple mechanical products.
The idea that technicians are busy reversing these complex assemblies back to single materials is a ridiculous one. Who would invest time, specialist know-how and tools into recovering pennies worth of value? Nobody, that's who.
Open-loop waste is more dependant on mechanical means to disconnect and separate whatever materials it can. For (completely understandable) commercial reasons, it's done in the shortest amount of time using the least amount of labour.
This approach is - very fundamentally - rigged in favour of high-value materials that are easy to recover. Metals such as copper and steel that can be fished out of the pulverised waste stream fare better. It’s a very different story for many low-value materials such as plastics, paints, adhesives and so on, that are difficult or impossible to recover.
These are precisely the materials that contain the toxic chemistry, carcinogens and microplastics that cause the most serious harm to human health and the environment. The amounts of these materials grows every year and they’re destined for landfill, incineration or to burn-up and be released as gasses during metal recovery.
This extraordinary book is the single biggest influence on Factorylux methodology. Discounted copies.
Science-based Circular Economy advocates, such as Michael Braungart (chemist) and William McDonough (architect), co-authors of the book ‘Cradle to Cradle - Remaking The Way We Make Things’, call out open loop schemes as ‘downcycling’ and nothing more than a rebrand of the existing (ie. linear) waste industry. The new identity might look and feel good, but it masks the fact that they basically take us to the same destination.
Viewed more acutely, open loops inject cash directly into the conventional waste industry and incentivise manufacturers to create more landfill, not less. They pass the small extra cost onto the buyer, and pass the waste management headache onto the existing waste industry. No change.
‘If you want to go to Mexico, and you're driving toward Canada, even if you slow down you're still going to Canada’
- William Mcdonough (Cradle To Cradle co-author)
What's the alternative?
A 'closed-loop' offers an alternative vision for repairability and waste management. At product end of life, waste can stop being waste and start being valuable components and materials that are cost-effective for the original manufacturers to recover and realise.
These products are easy to disassemble with single material components that are environmentally benign wherever they can be. It means we can take back our own products directly into our own factory (no 3rd parties) to disassemble and process into ‘new’ components in ways that are cost-effective compared to working from raw materials.
It's a radical approach but not a new one. Closed loops have served a small collection of niche industries (bottled milk and beer producers for example) for generations.
The most immediate benefit is improved health outcomes for every human in the product lifecycle. From end-users, production and installation personnel to anyone involved in repairing, decommissioning or recycling later in the product life cycle.
The Factorylux mission is to prove that a version of the same design logic can and should be applied to architectural lighting.
The makers must become the unmakers.
The sophistication and ingenuity of architectural lighting products today is mindboggling. The industry has made huge leaps, but too often they have been in the wrong direction.
Lighting manufacturers have got more than what it takes to fix the waste problem but they lack the right incentives and regulation.
Decades of lax regulation in the lighting industry created a landscape in which dominant lighting corporations are a source of inertia, not innovation, in the areas that matter the most.
Closed loops are a golden opportunity to harness the manufacturing ingenuity, in better, more sustainable ways.
Are you a lighting specifier who's interested in learning more about closed-loop light fittings and lighting track?
New solutions to old problems. What next?
Changing your supplier of lighting equipment today offers more benefits and less risk than ever before. Change your gear.
Discounted copies of 'Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things' are available from our store. It's a compelling read and great source of independent information that will help you understand and present these important ideas to your colleagues and clients.
Or just get in touch and say hello. We're a small company who are working hard to get bigger. We do it by connecting with new people who share our strong desire to make a better, more honest lighting industry. One that can overcome the sustainability challenges we face together.
- What's it all about
2 - Closed-loop Circular Economy (you are here!)
- The how and why of our manufacturing methodology.
- The most sustainable surface finish ever - explained.
- Single-materials are what make a closed-loop possible.
- Measure everything that leaves a factory, not just the product.
- Don't read this if you want to continue using regular paint.
- Why we exist. Where we are going.