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Closed Loop, A Primer

Team Zady

Today is raining, which means I can’t wear the killer heels I was planning, which is an annoying, but admittedly small cost of living in a closed loop system.

Let’s get technical for a moment. A “closed loop system” is one that does not exchange matter with the outside world. The rain is part of earth’s closed loop system. The rain falls from the sky, which allows our plants to grow, which in turn feeds us and the animals that we eat; then that rain gets absorbed by the soil going back into the water supply which then gets absorbed into the atmosphere and down again as rain. It’s a neat little system we’ve got for feeding us and all the planets and animals on the planet.

Now let’s think about an assembly line. First of all, notice the shape: we’ve got a line, not a loop. Think about the first assembly line, invented for the model T Ford. It began with materials, mostly steel, and ended with a car. What happened after the car was driven off the lot wasn’t really thought about. Of course, that was fine back when there were a ton of people and so few cars. But today, there are more than 1 billion cars on the road worldwide. And it turns out the car industry has developed a pretty good closed loop system. Our friends at Schnitzer Steel made a nice little video explaining how our old cars get recycled into new steel for new cars. The steel industry is so good at recycling that 95% of steel gets recycled.

The same cannot be said about the fashion industry. In America, each one of us throws out 70 pounds of clothing each year. And instead of reduce, reuse, recycle, we have a new system in place, thanks to fast fashion: acquire more, throwaway, replace. It’s because of this system that fashion is now one of the most polluting industries in the world. Enormous environmental resources are spent either drilling for oil (polyester) or growing cotton for us to just wear a few times and then throw it all out.

And even when we give our clothing away, it’s not as simple as it going to the needy. Most clothing actually gets sold off in bails, the summer stuff gets sent to sub-saharan Africa. And it turns out all that clothing that we essentially dump into this part of the region, actually holds that part of the world back from economic development. (You can read more about that process here.

Back to closed loop: there are companies that are trying to make apparel a closed loop, where clothing can be returned and made into new fiber. But there is reason to be very cautious. First, with natural fibers (your cottons, silks, wools,) when the fibers are recycled they become shorter. Shorter fibers means lower quality, itchier fibers. It’s not the same as recycling a can, which can become another can, or recycling cars for materials of the same quality. Now there is some work being done recycling synthetic fibers—specifically polyester, which is a plastic made from refined oil— because like other plastics they can be melted down and reconstituted. But the real issue here is that synthetics are toxic to create and originate from fossil fuels. And when they do end up in the ground, they take over 200 years to decompose, versus natural materials which take less than one.

So where does all of this leave us? Remember the adage reduce, reuse, recycle? We can go to that. We can buy clothes that we really love, but not the clothes that we just think are “cheap.” Even making that change will make an enormous difference. It will go a long way in reducing the amount of clothing that gets made (currently 150 billion pieces a year). When we love our clothes, we’ll want to keep wearing them (that’s the reuse part) and then when we are done with them, they can either be recycled, responsibly donated, or reabsorbed back into Earth’s natural closed loop.

In conclusion friends, be cautious of companies that claim recycling as the only answer, and let’s put some thought to what we’re buying…Our wallets and our style will thank us!