Understanding Closed Cycle Sustainability

For decades, most people in America drank beer and soda from refillable glass bottles. These bottles could be returned to either retail stores or the manufacturer, both of which would often refund the consumer a small deposit fee. These bottles were then cleaned and reused scores of times before the bottles were eventually discarded.

During the 1930s, however, steel beverage cans were developed, a breakthrough that would eventually revolutionize how bottled drinks were sold. The goal was to develop a container that allowed consumers to drink the product and then simply toss the can away. This was obviously more convenient than returnable bottles, and manufacturers, especially beer manufacturers, believed it would help boost sales significantly.

The steel can concept developed slowly in the 1930s but was put on hold in the 1940s due to World War II; however, by 1960, nearly half of the beer sold in the U.S. was sold in nonreturnable steel cans–and indeed, beer sales did increase. By comparison, most soft drinks in the U.S. at that time were still sold in returnable glass bottles, and their market share, especially when compared to beer sales, showed only moderate growth.

Not surprisingly, all the major producers of soft drinks soon jumped on the bandwagon and began to bottle their products in one-way, no-deposit cans. “Ecology” advocates–as Green activists were then called–soon became concerned that all of these cans would eventually end up in landfills.

By 1971, Oregon had become the first state to pass a “bottle bill,” which required refundable deposits on all beer and soft drink containers. By 1986, ten states had enacted similar legislation in the hope of conserving natural resources, promoting recycling, and reducing the amount of waste going to landfills. Making recyclable beer and soft drink containers soon became the new norm, but not necessarily because of these bottle bills; rather, major beer and soft drink producers realized that producing recyclable containers was good for the environment, good for business, and simply the right thing to do.

By encouraging recycling of their products, beer and soft drink producers had unknowingly initiated the process that would eventually lead to the kinds of programs that we now refer to as product stewardship or closed-loop sustainability programs. These programs go beyond recycling, finding ways to reuse products, reduce the amount of raw materials and fuels used in manufacturing, and minimize the emissions created by the production process.

These types of programs have obviously been a part of the beverage industry for quite some time. For the professional cleaning industry, however, similar programs are likely to be right around the corner.

Product Stewardship

Beyond promoting recycling or reducing fuel usage, what exactly is product stewardship? In a nutshell, product stewardship and closed-cycle sustainability programs ensure that everyone who comes in contact with a product–from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer to the end customer–is involved in the lifespan of the product. This means that by making, distributing, selling, or selecting a product, we all take responsibility for its environmental impact and the conservation of our nonrenewable resources.

For manufacturers, product stewardship often means planning for the recycling or reusing of products or the components used in those products. This is often achieved by redesigning products so that they are easier to recycle/reuse–and doing so often results in a cost savings. For distributors, retailers, and end customers, product stewardship means taking an active role in ensuring that the products we buy or sell are properly disposed of at the end of their lifecycles.

The electronic and computer industries have proven to be leaders in product stewardship/closed-cycle sustainability programs, while similar programs have recently been instituted in a number of other industries, from paint and chemicals to auto parts and even thermostats.

Product Stewardship in the Jansan Industry

Many people–even members of our own industry–are astonished when they discover just how many cleaning products are used every year in the United States. For example:

  • American businesses use more than six billion pounds of cleaning chemicals a year.
  • Approximately 500 million pounds of janitorial equipment – enough to fill 10,000 garbage trucks – are shipped to landfills every year.
  • More than 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products (such as toilet tissue and paper hand towels) are used annually, requiring the cutting of approximately 15 million trees.

Many of these products — especially cleaning equipment such as vacuum cleaners, extractors, and floor machines — are perfect candidates for so-called take back programs, which recycle/reuse the equipment.

But sadly, at this time there are few jansan manufacturers with established product stewardship programs or closed-cycle sustainability programs. Many previously owned cleaning machines (such as vacuum cleaners, floor machines, and extractors) do wind up being rebuilt and then sold again by distributors and even some manufacturers, who sometimes establish “outlet” type stores on their Web sites.

But statistics indicate that a great many more of these machines simply end up in landfills. And with the economy picking up and new, more technologically advanced cleaning tools and equipment being introduced, we are likely to see more of the older, used machines winding up at the landfill as well.

Containers such as the plastic bottles used to hold cleaning chemicals are another example of a product that has the potential to become part of a product stewardship program or closed-cycle sustainability program. To meet Green certification, these containers usually must be made from recycled materials and be recyclable themselves. However, due to the costs and difficulties involved in gathering and cleaning these products, there is little profit incentive for a product stewardship program to take hold at this time.

Taking ownership of these issues can provide more than just an environmental benefit for companies. Ultimately, as these programs evolve, they can provide a considerable cost savings as well as other business and sustainability benefits. Such motivations will certainly help to jump-start the product stewardship/closed-loop recycling movement in the jansan industry.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, as well as Sustainability Dashboard Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure, track and report on their facility’s environmental impacts, He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies