Nature uses closed loop systems. We can too.

closed loop systems

Time to get on board with closed loop systems.

From children’s movies to middle school science class, we learn about the circle of life; how all things are connected. 

Beyond that, most of us aren’t taught much more about us.  And unless you specifically take an environmental or ecology class, there isn’t much of a formal opportunity to develop critical thinking skills around closed loop systems, also referred to as circular economies.

These circular economies are zero waste, and everything is used.  Every molecule of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and so on.

You’ve probably heard of the carbon cycle, or the nitrogen cycle.  These cycles are often depicted in the context of gardening or forestry, but we take part in them every day.

Also, we break the every day.  Instead of webs of loops that circle back on themselves round and round and round, humans created an economy that is all about one directional lines, take it, use it, get rid of it.  It’s only in the last few years that we’ve started hearing talk about how important it is to build our productions systems to mimic nature. 

Closed loop systems. Circular economies.

With With closed loop systems we can live in harmony with the other species on this planet.  Otherwise…we will find ourselves queued up for extinction.

systems in nature

Waste Not, Want Not.

Let’s look at a really basic model.

Start with grass.  It uses energy from the sun(the only input from a technical outside source), combines it with nutrients and water from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air, to create sugars which it uses to grow.  In this process, the plant splits the carbon dioxide into carbon(which becomes part of those sugar molecules), and oxygen(some of which it releases back into the air.

As the grass grows, a deer comes along and eats the grass.  Now the nutrients and water are in the deer.  The deer breathes in the oxygen from the grass, and uses it to recombine the nutrients, allowing it to grow.

A mountain line comes along and eats the deer. Now the nutrients pass to the mountain lion.

Whatever part of the deer the mountain lion doesn’t eat, begins to decompose, returning the phosphorous, nitrogen, and other minerals back to the soil.  Which the grass will use.

Eventually the mountain lion also dies and decomposes.  Those nutrients return the soil, too.

Throughout the lives of the deer and mountain lion, they release carbon dioxide into the air in their breath.  It’s their bi-product just as oxygen is the grass’s bi-product.  Carbon dioxide is also released while they are both decomposing.  Every time those animals urinate, some of the water they took in returns to the soil.  The grass uses all these nutrients, water, and CO2 to start the process over again.

nutrient cycle diagram

Circles on Circles on Circles.

Even in this simple example, it wasn’t just one loop.  There were many little loops happening. And we didn’t even talk about all of the different pathways that lead to and from this one system.

As the animals decompose they provide nutrients to insects, fungi, and microbes.  Some of those insects are food for birds. Those birds are part of the mountain lion’s diet.  They also help to spread the seeds from the grass making a new generation to take part in the cycle.

Nothing is wasted.  There’s always some organism that carves out a niche using whatever is available. The water, the oxygen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the phosphorous. And these are only the most common building blocks for life on earth; there are so many more.  They’re all involved in this merry-go-round, surrounded by other merry-go-rounds, with riders hopping off of one and jumping onto another over and over and over again.

linear production systems

Human economies don't quite have this down.

Nature has been doing this since life began.  4.1 billion years ago.  That’s a pretty long track record for closed loop systems.  Any businessperson worth their salt can see how successful circular economies could be.

But we’ve gotten into this phase in our development as a species where resources move in one direction.

Think about paper.   You’ve got trees using the sun, water, carbon dioxide, and soil nutrients to grow. Just like the grass. 

We cut those trees down, reduce them to wood pulp, and turn that wood pulp into paper.  Then we use that paper for writing, gift wrapping, cleaning, etc.  And most of it ends up in a landfill.

Well a landfill is the earth right? Wrong.  Landfills are a dead end for those resources.  They’re typically lined with an impermeable barrier so that toxic chemicals don’t leak out.  This also keeps the useful materials in.  And because of how tightly packed landfills are, the matter doesn’t decompose and become available for the system all over again.

linear production system

The things we do put back into the system: water pollution, too much carbon dioxide, other air pollutants, and soil contamination.

This is how the “modern” world is made.  Clothes, houses, furniture, appliances, etc.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Recycling is increasingly commonplace.  But even that isn’t a perfect solution.



To create these circular economies, we need to think in terms of soil-to-soil.  As in “Can I take this thing from the soil, use it, and then safely return it to the soil?”  Here is an example and counter example.

  • Example: Grass grows -> Sheep eats grass -> Sheep grows wool and makes more sheep -> Humans use wool to make clothing, insulation, furniture.  Human also eats sheep -> When human is done with all those things, they are composted.  They return to the soil -> Grass eats soil.
    • Counter example: Plants and dinosaurs die a million years ago and make oil -> Humans dig up oil -> Humans burn oil to power machines that also use oil to make plastics like polyester -> Polyester is used to make clothing, furniture, insulation, containers, etc. -> When humans are done with all those things they are thrown away -> polyester does not compost.  It does not become more oil.

The image above is from the Northern California Fibershed.  The organization does a tremendous amount of research and education regarding sustainable textiles systems.  In this image we can see a mapped out flow for creating a closed loop system that always comes back to soil.

soil to soil

The Dirty Truth.

There are very few parts of our lives that can’t be made with a soil-to-soil production cycle.  “How do you return a refrigerator to the soil?”Well, there definitely are some things that are harder to put back in the soil.  But we could build the refrigerator differently so that it is more easily recycled. Things like furniture, clothing, houses, shoes, cutlery, tools – they can all be made out of natural materials that can return to the earth.

Check out this list of items that can be totally compostable.

Do you have any closed loop systems in your life? Share in the comments below.

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Built by humans. Inspired by Nature.

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