Closing the loop

TPswedenzoomSometimes I grow fond of the most peculiar things. When I got back to Wisconsin last August, I missed quite a few things about Sweden.  But one thing I was reminded of every day: toilet paper.  Everywhere I went in Sweden, the TP was gray in color – a lovely, pale, recycled paper gray. When I got home, all the bright white toilet paper seemed just a little too garish.

Does this relate to my learning about the efforts to create sustainable communities? Oh, my, yes.

Torbjörn explains the connections between products from the forest resource.

Torbjörn explains the connections between products from the forest resource.

For  those of us on the tour, Torbjörn Lahti explained a central concept of sustainability that they strive to apply to every product that people use, a concept of the next best use. The idea of “waste” is essentially redefined. In this model, waste is always considered an input for the next stage.

Torbjörn used the example of products from the forest industry, a giant industry in Sweden.  The parts of the harvested trees left over from building material manufacture becomes input for writing papers; those leftovers are put into newspaper production; newspaper becomes endearing gray toilet paper.  And all along the way, energy is extracted from the materials that cannot be cycled into the next product. .

(click on the photo below for a closer look)
Tour participants enter the Halleförs sewage treatment plant.

Tour participants enter the Halleförs sewage treatment plant.

Little man, tour mascot, gets a view of sewage coming into the plant.

Little man, tour mascot, gets a view of sewage coming into the plant.

We made a tour stop at a plant that many of us might consider the last use. But in nature, there is no last; there is just the next.

Annie Jones and Little Man describe the odor at the intake.

Annie Jones and Little Man describe the odor at the intake.

We visited the sewage treatment plant (that’s avloppsreningsverk for those of us boning up on our Swedish) for the community of Halleförs. We can picture how this closes the loop in this way: the sewage sludge (in its essence, organic matter and nutrients) becomes food for the next  generation of trees, the next round of forest products,  and the water becomes clean enough to return to the environment.

Sewage plant outflow is clear and definitely not odorous.

Sewage plant outflow is clear and definitely not odorous.

It all comes back around.  Some cycles take longer than others, so they are hard for us to see because the experience may bridge generations, or even eons.

A change in awareness can reshape our relationship with the environment, upon which we depend for our existence, from a TAKE > MAKE > WASTE mentality to a BORROW > USE > RETURN attitude.

(For a long  – 49 minutes – but extremely informative video that covers this in more detail, consider viewing Waste=Food. )

Where do you see people closing the loop in the world where you work?

Where do you see people missing opportunities to close the loop?

How does this affect our ability to create sustainable systems?

Wisconsin has a new recycling law.  You can learn about more opportunities for you to personally close the loop locally by visiting the Marathon County Solid Waste website.

2 comments

  1. Excellent post. Reading William McDonough introduced me to this concept as an undergrad, one of the catalytic treads that lead me down the path I now charge.

    The waste around us really is startling. We’ve somehow managed to design our economic system to revolve around consumption and waste to the extent that it has become difficult (if not impossible) to reuse and recycle a great deal of our every day items. Progress is being made here in the States, but is it fast enough?

    What needs to happen is a dramatic paradigm shift, which may be underway. Lets hope that enough of us learning, sharing, and pushing will accellerate the process in any small way.

  2. That is really cool. I am always amazed at how far ahead of us the Nordic countries are when it comes to reducing and recycling. It is so awesome that you got to take this trip and are now sharing all of these ideas and thoughts.

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