For those of us in the field of sustainability, the Circular Economy is not a new concept. However, when it comes to the Circular Economy and plastics too often there is a misunderstanding of how the two relate. The Circular Economy is used as simply a re-branding of recycling. The idea that recycling will solve the plastics dilemma is a misguided direction that has been pushed for decades. To achieve a sustainable plastics economy, we must understand the Circular Economy and refocus the vision.
The Sustainable Plastics Economy is a guide, written for those wanting to implement the Circular Economy within the plastics industry, providing a deeper understanding of the Circular Economy, and a vision beyond simply recycling. It is a method to replicate the efficiency of nature as intended in the Circular Economy.
The Sustainable Plastics Economy integrates a complete Circular Economy approach with the unique challenges of plastic. It includes the concepts of Sustainable Materials Management by addressing the full life cycle impact of various plastic options such as, what types of materials to select, where to source raw ingredients, waste infrastructures, and customary discard scenarios. The Sustainable Plastics Economy creates a dynamic, data driven approach to create a system designed to replicate and ultimately integrate into nature, as intended in the Circular Economy precept.
The link below allows for a complimentary download of the Sustainable Plastics Economy guidebook. This guide provides an overview of the Circular Economy concepts and introduces the Sustainable Plastics Economy. Also included is a five-step process for organizations to implement the Sustainable Plastics Economy in a practical and pragmatic method.
Download a complimentary copy of the The Sustainable Plastics Economy here:
In medicine, there is an age-old debate surrounding whether physicians and researchers should focus on treating the symptoms of an ailment or creating a cure. From a business and shareholder perspective, treating symptoms is preferred because it ensures continued revenues and much higher shareholder return; whereas the patient would much rather obtain the cure. Unfortunately, the decision of where to spend money and marketing is most often determined by those who seek financial gain – the shareholders.
Plastic is often portrayed as the scourge of our planet, not a day passes without an email, article or news brief talking about plastic waste. Most often, the complaint about plastic surrounds plastic waste (it is seldom to hear complaints about the cost, performance or use of plastics), and the solution promoted seems to constantly revolve around recycling. Recycling is touted as the end-all method to prevent plastic waste.
However, is it possible that recycling is just a method to treat the symptoms of plastic waste?
Consider for a moment that the disease is plastic waste. The cure is to eliminate the waste of used plastic – this means that any solution must definitively address the end-of-life aspect of plastic.
Ever wondered why products using recycled plastic only have a percentage of recycled plastic, why recycled resin has a brownish haze or why plastic is down-cycled rather than recycled?
To recycle plastic, it must be melted and then reheated again to form a product. Heat is kryptonite to plastic, making it weaker, more brittle and increased discoloration. Within 3-4 times of reheating the plastic, it becomes useless and must be discarded as waste. Every ounce of plastic will eventually be discarded – contributing to the disease of plastic waste.
Recycling is simply a method of treating the symptoms, to create a perception of improvement without ever addressing the fact that all the plastic will eventually be discarded as waste regardless of recycle rates. We will not cure this disease until we look at the final discard of plastic and how to remove it completely after use.
So, why do we continue to spend billions each year on treating the symptom rather than focusing on the cure? Why all the marketing and pressure to focus only on recycling?
Makes one wonder who the shareholders are…..
Modern technology and chemistry provides options for converting discarded plastic into energy and fuel – without incineration. This removes the plastic completely from the environment while creating value for communities. Perhaps it is time to cure this problem rather than simply dealing with the symptoms?
Sustainability is a driving factor for many companies, however understanding how to measure and achieve sustainability has proven to be extremely complex. In 1994 John Elkington coined the phrase “people, planet, profit” at SustainAbility. This concept of the triple bottom line is now found in nearly all discussions of corporate sustainability. And while the newly commissioned sustainability executive will proudly tout their implementation of “people, planet, profit; I can’t help but feel they are missing the real solution.
The triple bottom line follows the belief that a business should account for and take inventory of environmental impacts and social impacts while maximizing financial gains. Inherently there is a constant struggle to justify the financial costs of environmentally sustainable solutions, and improving the community comes at a price as well. Inevitably all sustainability managers find themselves with ideas and solutions to improve people and planet, but without justification to implement these solutions because of the impact on profit.
The problem is that we need a fundamental shift in the understanding of the purpose of business and what “people, planet, profit” really means. Only then can these three aspects work together seamlessly.
Some believe the purpose of business is to make money – profit. The butcher makes money selling meat, the chef makes money cooking meals and the builder makes money buying houses. While each of these businesses could make a profit, this is not the purpose of business. If consumers don’t want meat, cooked meals or new homes, those businesses will never survive. The only way a business remains is if it provides a value to the community.
Obviously these are simplistic examples, but the overall perspective is the same. The purpose of business is to provide value. Value to the people, value to the planet.
Profit on the other hand is not a value provided. Profit is what you get in exchange.
In a truly sustainable business, “people, planet, profit” is not a triple bottom line – it is a math equation and it looks like this:
People + Planet = Profit
The profit is an inherent result of providing value to the people, value to the planet. In a sustainable business, profit should never exceed value, nor should it be less.
Perhaps the solution to the bottom line is simply creating a balance between the value you provide to people and planet, and the value you receive in return as profit?
“It shouldn’t be ‘recycle or die,'” said David Allaway, senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “Not everything should be recycled, and some things should be landfilled. … It’s not recycling for the sake of recycling, but recycling to achieve an environmental outcome.”
Most modern recycling programs measure success through waste diverted from landfills — using weight as the unit of measurement. But not all materials have the same environmental impacts.
Given the predominant “recycling religion,” the assertion that the recyclable material isn’t always the best environmental choice might sound like heresy. But if the entire lifecycle of a product is considered, this actually can make a lot of sense.
“Sometimes the best choice in packaging is to use something that isn’t as recyclable but has lower upstream impacts,” Allaway said. In certain situations, for example, the best choice we have is to choose a material that has low upstream impacts and then sending it to the landfill.
Enter material management — that is, taking actions across the entire lifecycle of materials to reduce the impacts across the entire lifecycle of materials. According to Allaway, this broader view can give organizations a larger toolbox to use limited resources to make better decisions. A cornerstone of materials management is waste prevention through circular thinking.
While the circular economy has become somewhat of a buzzword in sustainability circles, its emphasis on viewing waste as nutrients has profound power to create production models that reduce reliance on raw materials by continuously cycling materials of all types back through supply chains — in other words: closing the loop.
“It isn’t one loop, but a series of loops from different systems,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader at Dow. “The circular economy can benefit society by taking waste from one loop and putting it into another.”
Starbucks’ systems-based approach to recycling
“I would define the circular economy by using the word ‘economy,'” said Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks.
The coffee chain has taken a systems-based approach to recycling, with an emphasis on upstream impacts. After hearing from its customers and employees that recycling coffee cops was a top priority, Starbucks established the goal of diverting 100 percent of its waste from its company-owned stores by 2015.
But achieving this was easier said than done.
“One of the things we discovered early on is that recycling is a hyperlocal issue, and for a global company our ability to have global targets and execute them at a hyperlocal level is a challenge,” Hanna said.
Starbucks faced a patchwork of recycling infrastructure and market conditions. Likewise, many of its store’s landlords control the waste collection and decide whether they want to provide recycling. These challenges require customizing recycling programs to each store and market, and may limit the company’s ability to offer recycling in some stores.
One key way Starbucks worked around this was by trying to increase the recyclability of its paper coffee cups, which Hanna said makes up the largest part of the company’s carbon footprint.
Starbucks engaged its paper suppliers to tinker with its cups. The results turned out positive: Paper mills came up with a way to recycle the cups, and profitably. Starbucks then was able to tell cities they should recycle their cups because there’s a willing buyer.
Despite its efforts, Starbucks failed to meet its waste diversion goal — just over 50 percent of its stories have achieved zero waste. Echoing Tierney, Hanna said that companies striving to achieve zero waste isn’t “realistic or ideal.”
Better metrics for recycling
Admirable as it may be to divert waste from landfills, our singular focus on this as a success metric may have blinded us from other negative environmental impacts — particularly upstream.
“We need better metrics we can all agree on,” Hanna said. “Carbon dioxide should be one of these metrics.”
When thinking about food waste, for example, significantly more greenhouse gases are generated producing food than emitted by food rotting in a landfill, according to Allaway. If we reduce the impacts upstream, this could multiply the desirable environmental outcomes downstream.
Climate change isn’t the only environmental impact — others are related to health, energy and the economy. If we equate circular economics with recycling, we may continue down the same unsustainable path that got us into our current predicament in the first place.
“One of the things that worries me about the circular economy is that it could be a red herring that prevents us from addressing the fundamental unsustainability of our systems of production and consumption,” Allaway said.
“I would rather see us recycle fewer things well, than more things poorly.”
Original article: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/can-circular-thinking-set-us-free-recycling-religion
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 12:01am
As blasphemous as it may sound, some things just shouldn’t be recycled. Onstage are John Tierney, author and The New York Times science writer; Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary and now co-host of The Five on Fox News Channel; Adam Minter, author and columnist at Bloomberg.
Recycling waste is more trouble than it’s worth, according to John Tierney, author and New York Times science writer, in his widely read and contested Op-Ed, “The Reign of Recycling.”
“The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing,” he concluded in October. “How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?”
But Tierney spoke of recycling with a slightly more moderate tone Thursday at the 2016 Waste Management Executive Sustainability Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. WM produced the event, which GreenBiz hosted and livecasted.
Tierney conceded that “recycling does make sense for some materials at some times in some places. … My problem is with what I called the ‘recycling religion.’ The idea that recycling is an inherently virtuous activity, that the more we do of it the better, and that the ultimate goal should be achieving zero waste.”
At the forum, business, government and nonprofit leaders explored the idea that cities, companies and consumers should break free of their zealotry for recycling and open their minds to rethink waste from a more holistic perspective.
Originally posted at https://www.greenbiz.com/article/can-circular-thinking-set-us-free-recycling-religion
Earlier this month I attended the 2016 executive sustainability forum and had the pleasure of listening to Jim Fish – Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Waste Management. In his presentation Jim discusses the circular economy and the current state of recycling. The presentation is an honest and straightforward discussion about recycling. Here is the brief synopsis of his presentation:
Currently Waste Management is the largest residential recycler in the world. They have invested more than $1.5 billion into their recycling infrastructure – in past years they were investing $300-$400 million each year. With this amount of money invested, it is in Waste Management’s best interest to see recycling thrive.
Unfortunately, we are in a crisis with the current state of recycling. This is due to several factors: commodity pricing, quality of collection and changing packaging trends. We are now in the fourth year of low commodity prices, which directly jeopardizes the profitability of recycling. The quality of recycled materials has decreased due to single stream recycling infrastructure where consumers place up to 30-40% non-recyclable materials into the blue bin. And considering that most recyclable products are related to packaging, the trend toward non-recyclable flexible packaging is replacing packaging that was previously recyclable. So while flexible packaging is a winner from an environmental standpoint because it is light weight, energy efficient and uses much less resources to produce, it is not recyclable.
Each of these factors contributes to the current crisis and as the largest recycler Waste Management has an interest in solving the crisis. They also have a unique position because Waste Management is both the largest landfill owners/operators and the largest recycler which makes them the key to solving the recycling crisis. When they fix recycling for Waste Management, they fix it for the entire industry.
As a business, Waste Management cannot continue to invest in recycling with a hope that markets will improve. While they have invested over $1.5 billion dollars into recycling, today that is nearly non-existent. They must adapt to the changing market.
The recent trend pushing the belief that recycling everything is the end goal has caused some companies and communities to establish zero waste, landfill diversion and zero landfill goals without consideration of the environmental impacts. Some materials have a larger greenhouse gas footprint by recycling rather than landfilling. Reaching total diversion goals will be difficult to achieve due to the issues going on with the recycling industry and may cause unintended consequences.
Jim closed his presentation with some thought provoking questions.
What is the end goal? Are we trying to reduce greenhouse gases or simply looking to recycle everything? There is a cost to achieving any goal. In this case it may be an environmental cost as well as an economic cost.
What if instead of a goal to recycle everything, we focus on greenhouse gas reductions? When we do this we focus on recycling the right things – those that make a real difference.
There are various facts and assumptions that are out there. It will be good to identify how to make recycling environmentally and economically sustainable. We need to make recycling sustainable for the future – focus on recycling the right materials, set realistic goals and not try to recycling everything – this just leads to higher costs without the added benefit.
Every day there is a new article referring to the value of landfill gas to energy (LFG Energy) and how it integrates into overall waste management sustainability. The increase in discussion about how landfills are an integral part of sustainability made me wonder what the real numbers are and if LFG Energy is in fact growing trend.
Well, I just finished going through the entire EPA landfill database and here are the results:
(For clarification: These calculations only include landfills that are currently accepting waste “active landfills” because for sustainability purposes regarding product design, closed landfills would make no difference as they no longer accept waste. I also removed landfills that had been open less than 2 years as landfill gas management would not yet be applicable.)
Number of active landfills in the US: 1174
Total US EPA reported waste in place: 4,733,180,647 short tons
Number of landfills with current or planned LFG Energy: 435
Total US EPA reported waste in place at LFG Energy sites: 3,488,101,967 short tons
Percentage of waste in place at LFG Energy sites: 74%
So while only 37% of the landfills are converting the methane to energy, these landfills are much larger and accept much more waste so they have a much higher impact than the landfills not collecting methane and converting it to energy. In short, 74% of our waste placed in active landfills is in landfills that will actively capture the methane and convert it to energy.
In the past 20 years there has been a 430% increase in the number of LFG energy sites. This is an average annual growth rate of 21.5%. Keep in mind this is only the increase in the number of landfills with LFG Energy projects. Because the landfills with energy projects are the larger landfills, the true impact on the waste stream is grossly understated. If the growth numbers were based on the amount of waste being put into LFG energy sites, the numbers would be much higher.
The growth rate of waste going into LFG Energy is much higher than the single digit increases reported in any other waste disposal scenario. Seems that this is more than a trend, it is a change in direction that has been quietly taking place over the past 20 years. With more of our waste going into LFG energy facilities, sustainability professionals must design products that integrate into the process by biodegrading within the landfill.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) claims to take a material neutral, lifecycle oriented approach to packaging sustainability with a goal of enabling and encouraging a more sustainable economy for all materials. However, their recent opinion publication against enhancing the biodegradability of plastics is detrimental to the sustainable management of plastics after use. They also claim to have evaluated the use of additives that accelerate the biodegradation of plastics. However, their conclusions and information make it apparent that the only “evaluation” that was conducted was input from organizations that have a competitive interest to these technologies and will directly benefit from the falsities presented. The study was elementary at best and does not include the critical information to accurately evaluate the impact of a material or technology. The position of the SPC lacks credibility, accuracy and directly promotes misinformation to an industry already confused by green-washing and clever marketing.
Sustainability will only be achieved by evaluating the facts, educating the industry and making changes that are effective in real world situations. Unfortunately, many of the “trendy” ideas regarding sustainability are more environmentally damaging than our current methods and materials. This is exacerbated by organizations that promote themselves as sustainability experts and spread misinformation to promote a specific agenda. Often these ideas have a “feel good” aspect, so it is simple to sway opinion. Sustainability however is not achieved by following emotional response or by doing what seems to be right. Sustainability decisions must be based on facts, results and the current infrastructure.
Here is a factual look at the opinions presented by the SPC: Get the Facts
A recent study done by universities in Sweden and Australia, show the biggest risks to our planet are not in climate change as is popular beleif, as the levels of risk are still considered in the zone of uncertainty. Instead the critical risks to our planet are being caused by loss of biosphere integrity (the changes we are making to the land) are causing species extinction over 100 times faster than historical norms. The highest risk factors are found in the pollution not in our air, but in our water and soil from biochemical flows primarily nitrogen and phosphorus which are beyond the risk of uncertainty and have moved into the high risk zone. Fertilization use in farming is 8 times higher and the nitrogen levels entering the ocean has quadrupled. They clearly state that “the direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change.”
This brings into question the push for bio-based plastics that utilize farmed products such as corn, sugarcane and other crop based materials for plastic production. Is our drive for plant based plastics pushing our planet to the brink of collapse? What if we require all bio-based plastics to be made only with waste materials and not crops? Perhaps we should focus more on the overall environmental impact of materials rather than jump on the bandwagon with anything called “bio-based”?
Portland has announced a major change to their community compost system – as of March 1, 2015 they will no longer be accepting compostable plastics such as forks, spoons and cups. In fact, any food scrap loads with more than trivial amounts of compostable plastics will be diverted to the landfill. This also means that compostable plastics should not be marketed as compostable in Portland because they are not allowed in the system.
This decision comes as a surprise to many restaurants who have diligently converted to compostable plastics trying to “go green”. Unfortunately, what they were not told when they were sold on the “compostable plastic” was there is many different plastics that will compost, some provide value while others do not. There are natural plastics such as starch and ENSO RENEW that are virtually identical to food waste. There are other synthetic plastics that will compost, such as PLA, that are not similar to food waste (and will not biodegrade in your back yard either). These second types of compostable plastics add absolutely no value to the compost system. Current ASTM D6400 requirements for compostable plastics require that the plastic convert 90% to CO2 within 120 days. These requirements are also built for commercial compost systems that operate at extremely high temperatures – much higher than most compost piles ever reach (why? because PLA requires the high heat to break down). The result? You end up with plastics that turn into greenhouse gas or don’t break down at all in the compost system. Either way, there is no value or benefit left in the soil.
Contrary to popular belief, these synthetic compostable plastics are not the same as plant matter in the compost. Plant matter degrades slowly over time and results in carbon retention in the soil as well as minerals and nutrients (together all of this known as humus). The value of composting is to create nutrient rich top soil – not to convert everything into air or to leave plastic fragments in our soil.
As we move toward more natural compostable materials such as ENSO RENEW, perhaps it will help Portland to reconsider accepting plastics in the compost system.