Closed loop systems and striving for “net zero” on college campuses

Dates: Dec 2010
Skills/Subjects: , , , ,

As the Kyoto Protocol was finalized and on its way to be ratified by the U.S., legislators had already decried it as dead on arrival, citing conflicts with existing laws and domestic markets. Even now, communication is breaking down and forecasts are less than favorable in pre-Copenhagen talks. However, zooming in to a single company, like U.S. carpet tiling company Interface, Inc., shows that closed loop supply chains are both feasible and profitable. Taking from these successes, applying a closed-loop system to a college campus would also yield positive and potentially profitable results. Initiatives on behalf of the Georgia Institute of Technology as a whole, individual departments, or even residence halls all have a chance of moving a college campus toward a net zero waste state that could both cut costs and provide a solid educational opportunity in sustainability for a generation with a large mess to clean.


Reducing environmental impact via government or large-scale projects are often mired in politics and legislation. Even via national agencies that are supposed to avoid politics in favor of policy development like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not meet standards or progress seen in Europe. However, small-scale sustainable, closed-loop systems are highly effective and have demonstrated success in many industries (Agrawal & Toktay 2009). Since the goal is to provide a profit and return to stakeholders (Donaldson & Preston, 1995) instead of satisfying governmental procedures and politics, individual companies have both more incentive and condensed authority to implement sustainable systems.

Taking the initiatives and related data from the Georgia Institute of Technology and other colleges leading in sustainability, the success in industrial adoption of closed-loop systems could likely be applied with as much, if not more, success and development on college campuses. Implementing these systems and striving for net-zero status building-by-building or campus-wide at colleges yields major success while also contributing to education in sustainable practice.

The first section below covers the fundamentals of what a closed loop system accomplishes and requires, as well as what net zero means, for both industry and individual on small scales. The next section covers the educational perspective of such a system and how an education immersed in sustainable technology reaps major benefits for a generation tasked with salvaging unbalanced ecosystems. The last section covers why such a system should be implemented, how it can be valued, how it is coordinated and executed, and finally how to role of students and what they have opportunity and motivation to achieve is the most important goal of all. The eventual macroeconomic or large-scale implications themselves that intergovernmental initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol cannot be accurately accounted for and rely entirely on small-scale applications to demonstrate results.

Closed loop systems and net zero overview

If the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to industry, then closed loop systems are that in practice. A closed loop supply chain, whereby companies or entire industries recover and reuse products from their consumers, allows nearly all material falling under an income statement’s cost of goods sold to eventually find itself back in the factory (Agrawal & Toktay 2009). Furthermore, net zero implies that its energy output is greater than or equal to its energy input.

Consider the case of Interface, Inc.: a billion-dollar carpeting corporation determined to be a leader in sustainability via its Mission Zero campaign. To accomplish this, Interface first reduces landfill-bound waste and energy use per unit. Next it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and incorporates renewable energy sources and recycled materials for production. Finally, it collects the end-of-the-line factors like consumable resources and either reuses and repurposes them into a harvestable resource or converts it into a benign substance that can be returned to nature (“Seven fronts,” n.d.). In this way, Interface intends to yield more than it consumes, referring to the aforementioned net zero concept. However, the second law of thermodynamics explains how mechanical efficiency – simply, output divided by input – greater than or equal to one is impossible, because at some point energy must be consumed by the process itself (Moran & Shapiro, 2007). Analogously, a supply chain could run into unavoidable overhead costs or consumable resources and will therefore not be a gross zero process; rather, it will be net zero in that other forms of output in a combined flow of energy, money, and social equity would make up for any irrecoverable losses of energy from the process. Therefore, even a successful company accelerating in a closed loop of resource reuse will naturally find a sort of centrifugal force with costs, resources, and byproducts being flung off as it revolves about an axis of sustainability.

This is where the trash-to-treasure adage comes into play in another sense: industrial ecology. All the factors of a product’s lifecycle – production, marketing, management, trade, and disposal – affect different areas of an industry’s ecosystem just like what animals do that affect their environment (Thomas et al., 2003). Unlike animals, however, humans have introduced both the concept of irrecoverable waste and the ability to regulate its own environment. The problem here is that unsustainable systems imbalance the industrial ecosystem via inefficiency in energy use, resource consumption, and product disposal. Regulation of industrial ecosystems on a federal level have not met long-term success, especially in the last month as several efforts at a national carbon market, whereby emissions are essentially treated as limited commodities, have stopped at legislators’ feet. These carbon markets, especially if they are to be on such a large scale, often require complex management and setup costs. The Kyoto Protocol and subsequent renegotiations thereof have, however, made significant progress in both initiating and incentivizing an international cooperation in general sustainability (Knox-Hayes, 2010).

However, maintaining sustainable and closed loop systems require still more cooperation, and political and governmental intervention muddle the process. Furthermore, it also muddles the meaning of sustainability. Capitalist systems as a whole that regulate environmental protections and sustainability measures translate the value of nature into a currency and thus loses its natural meaning. The real results stem from the fervency and personal values of individuals, like Interface, Inc.’s founder, that are legitimately interested in both the conservation of nature and profiting from such a venture. The best complex systems are often built from successful simpler systems. Therefore, the transition to closed loop systems should start with the intraindustry or intrabusiness context rather than the international, interstate, interindustry, or even interbusiness.

Educational perspective on closed loop systems

If closed loop systems are to start with small scale applications, then educational systems may stand to benefit in one of the most profitable and interactive ways. That is, it is profitable in terms of applying for an ever-increasing federal subsidization of green technology (especially for public institutions), reducing energy consumption in an environment with extremely high energy use (especially for research institutions), and investing in the education of students via immersion in an environment that applied the previous two points. Another advantage of educational institutions are the concept of heavy compartmentalization and distributed control. Georgia Tech alone is divided into academic departments, facilities, and student organizations, and then each of those are divided into a slew of other departments, research departments, clubs, and more. Each of those somewhat autonomous have their own initiatives and areas of control, and then each has their own funding.

Once each subgroup has its own funding and priorities, it can justify the valuation between academic applications and budgetary constraints. When an educational opportunity can merge with a budgetary relief, like installing highly efficient fume hoods in a biomedical engineering laboratory, it’s a win-win scenario for administration and education. Businesses often do not have this unique opportunity as the real goals are often limited to profitability, and only after that is met can social capital via sustainability be a more attractive option. Whereas some institutions may not be set up this way, Georgia Tech is particularly compartmentalized in this way, with most sustainability initiatives controlled via a central funding office but individually mostly autonomous that vary by the building and by the department (M. Kinstler, personal communication, November 11, 2010).

This compartmentalization also works well for coordination and execution. For example, when Georgia Tech received a million dollar grant from the General Electric Foundation, it established the forerunner of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS) – now a highly successful and growing technological and management research center. This laid the foundation for sustainability research and education that now allows every student to take at least one course in sustainability.

For a college’s facilities, administrators have the comparative advantage for managing infrastructure and interdepartmental activities, as they are tasked with optimizing management of limited and still-decreasing federal funding. At Georgia Tech, the Office of Environmental Stewardship coordinates projects such as plans for sustainable and net zero buildings and a tireless effort of retrofitting existing building with more efficient technology (Kinstler, 2007).

Student involvement, however, is perhaps the most difficult task and yet one of the most rewarding. Students can’t be forced to appreciate sustainable systems, but if students were granted both incentive and self-determination they would learn on their own how sustainability is valuable and impact other students and possibly the college itself. For example, Students Organizing for Sustainability and the Student Government Association’s Campus Sustainability Committee. Both organizations and their own projects, funded by their own operations and Institute-funded budgets, interact with the student population daily.

Micro-controls like this allow efforts to be maximized by allowing the certain people who know exactly what needs to be done in their department to have control over how to best allocate funding. Combining the individual and cooperative efforts on behalf of faculty, administrators, and students, colleges demonstrate a huge potential for implementing a self-perpetuating and sustainable system like closed loops and net zero projects. Georgia Tech has stepped in this direction, with several dedicated areas such as the College of Management’s research group Expanding Closed-Loops In Production Systems (ECLIPS) combining faculty with students in sustainability research.

How and where sustainable systems could be implemented

The first steps most entities take in achieving sustainability are taking the low-hanging fruit, or even fruit on the ground. Whereas colleges are ripe for improving these highly fruitful sustainability initiatives, they could focus more on providing a fully closed loop system. However, a great deal of these troubles lie in funding problems; since 2009, the University System of Georgia’s budget has been reduced substantially (Childress & Perdue, 2010), with a similar decline in other states. With that reduction, the profitability of sustainable closed loop systems may appear more attractive to improving financial balance. If the most important current idea is to implement closed loop systems in colleges for the sake of both educational and financial investment, then such systems should be applied to areas with the greatest return in both aspects.

One such area is building renovation, especially moving toward a net zero status. First, if one building is net zero for energy, then both the educational opportunities and the economic return are affected. In fact, earlier this year Georgia Tech received funding for a Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory; naturally, the building itself will also be net zero energy consumption (“Construction grant,” 2010).

Inter-building systems, as well, offer the ability to make an entire academic department self-sufficient. For example, the biomedical engineering complex on the Georgia Tech campus includes condensate collectors can provide over five million gallons of water per year, and the College of Management building is LEED Silver certified. One goal of the building, and therefore the entire department, is to prepare future business leaders to identify with and even form a niche in sustainability and environmental technologies. Technology Square, the buildings surrounding the Georgia Tech side of Fifth Street, as a whole is a successful project in the coordination of inter-building sustainable systems. The air and energy systems are an example of closed loop, inter-building systems in the square, along with highly reflective roofs and efficient lighting that makes it significantly more energy efficient than national standards. Water usage in Technology Square is down as well, due to low flow mechanisms and recycling; main campus irrigation will also soon be a completely grey water system that uses no potable water.

The second most important area of improving sustainability on college campuses as well as enabling them to be launching points of sustainable systems is further engagement with students. Students often work for free, especially if it looks nice on a resume or curriculum vitae, and thus perfectly satisfy the need for financial feasibility. However, they are at a significant disadvantage in terms of access and ability. As students, they only have as much access to tools that enable further involvement as the college is willing to provide. For example, should a group of students decide they want to expand a recycling program, that requires the facilities to collect, transport, and dispose of the material. Practically, this cannot be done by students alone. The recycling rate increased by a third in two years to 902 tons in 2009, according to the Office of Solid Waste Management & Recycling (2009), attributable in part to the student organization Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) when it partnered with the office to improve student-side recycling. When the college offers stellar networking opportunities like Georgia Tech, achievements in organizing sustainability initiatives are met with increased communication between school services and students. The dining services provider Sodexo routinely meets with SOS members to discuss student concerns and actively meets requests and solutions reached during these meetings (N. Fry, personal communication, October 28, 2009).

Colleges should go this far to invite students and third parties to actively improve both the campus and the students’ experiences. At the moment, I am personally working to collaborate with local recycling company Green Grease, LLC., to improve student-side recycling of fats, oil, and grease. I would like to start with my two residence halls with one of two options. The cheaper option is to distribute Green Grease’s 1.25 gallon buckets to every room with significant usage of fats, oil, and grease and schedule pickup times; however, the logistics of per-bucket pickup is inconvenient. The easier option that also allows significant room for growth is to install a 55-gallon recycling system near the residence halls’ dumpster area where students with their buckets can dispose of the grease, and regularly scheduled pickups can work that way (“Green Grease”, n.d.). I have the option of working through my own residence hall’s budget, the Residence Hall Association’s budget, or work out a deal with the campus recycling office to achieve this.

Georgia Tech is truly a great leader in providing opportunity, but advertising and encouraging this access to services and operations on college campuses and the ability to make a difference is integral to motivating students to apply the concepts they interact with via sustainable buildings and local closed-loop systems.


Georgia Tech is but one of many colleges leading the incorporation of sustainable design in its facilities and environmentally-conscious content in its curriculum. According to the recently released Georgia Tech Strategic Plan (2009), the next 25 years’ worth of the most critical problems facing the world will be solved via research and educational institutions like Georgia Tech. This presents possibly the best reason for colleges to immerse students in what they teach and integrate the very technology and solutions to these critical problems into the space in which students learn. Especially Georgia Tech, as an engineering school, it seems only natural that its own buildings, existing and planned, be reengineered to fit the Institute’s sustainability standards, which are an amalgam of the highest standards practicable at this level (M. Kinstler, personal communication, November 11, 2010).

Georgia Tech has already initiated many sustainability efforts. Most projects focus on reducing energy consumption with a net zero goal in mind, and all academic departments have their own flavor of sustainability classes. The biggest players at Tech are Dining Services, the Office of Environmental Stewardship, and the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems. Student organizations and projects cover any gaps left in Institute-funded initiatives as well as directly involve students in an educational experience that only total immersion in the movement can achieve.

This is how the future generation of policymakers will help to scrub the dirty ways of previous generations, and future students will have both what I just covered as well as our then-employed generation to look up to and find support from. With Georgia Tech as an example, the future of college campuses as the forefront in widespread adoption and education in sustainable closed loop systems grows brighter.

Works Cited

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Childress, T., & Perdue, S. (2010). The governor’s budget report, fiscal year 2011. Atlanta, GA.: Office of Planning and Budget.

Construction Grant to Help Fund Carbon-Neutral Energy Solutions Laboratory. (2010, January 15). GT Newsroom. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from

Donaldson, T., & Preston, L. (1995). The stakeholder theory of the corporation: concepts, evidence, and implications. The Academy of Management Review, 20(1), 65-91.

Georgia Institute of Technology. (2009). Designing the future: a strategic vision and plan (p. 3). Atlanta, GA.: Author.

Green Grease: a new alternative to cooking grease disposal. (n.d.). Green Grease. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from

Kinstler, M. (2007). Campus environmental stewardship and sustainability status report. Retrieved from Georgia Institute of Technology, Office of Environmental Stewardship website:

Knox-Hayes, J. (Forthcoming 2010). Constructing carbon market spacetime: climate change and the onset of neo-modernity. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from

Moran, M. J., & Shapiro, H. N. (2007). The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Fundamentals of Engineering Thermodynamics (6th ed., p. 217). Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

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Seven fronts of sustainability. (n.d.). Interface Global. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from

Thomas, V., Theis, T., Lifset, R., Grasso, D., Kim, B., Koshland, C., et al. (2003). Industrial ecology: policy potential and research needs. Environmental Engineering Science, 20(1). Retrieved December 8, 2010, from