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.
The judgment was a huge win for companies looking to address the plastics they produce that will end up in a landfill, including the support of marketing such biodegradable materials. The judge stood by the science of the matter and recognized legitimate testing. He also recognized the variations that are inherent in any natural process. The complete report is very interesting, so if you need some evening reading take a look at the entire 300 pages. Complete Report
In the meantime, here is a synopsis of the court findings:
Biodegradability is an inherent feature of a material, much like color or IV, the environmental conditions will affect the rate of biodegradation – but it does not change whether the material is biodegradable. Basically, it either is or it isn’t.
Biodegradation is the degradation of a material through the action of naturally occurring living organisms – there is no time frame limitation as the biodegradation time frame is dependent of the environment. This would imply that any material requiring an initial mechanical degradation prior to biodegradation would not be inherently biodegradable.
The only testing valid for landfill biodegradable is anaerobic testing that uses gas production as the measurement for biodegradation (ASTM D5511, ASTM D5526 and Biochemical Methane Potential Testing would all apply). Weight loss is not valid for biodegradation testing. Aerobic testing is not valid for landfill biodegradation validation.
The FTC surveys that concluded consumers believe biodegradable material will go away in less than a year was thrown out as invalid. Instead it was shown that a majority of consumers understand that the rate of biodegradation is dependent on the material and the environment. Hence the one year restriction the FTC has placed would not be scientifically or socially sound.
Biodegradation of additive containing plastics can and does produce biodegradable materials.
It is not appropriate to place a time frame for complete biodegradation as it is dependent upon conditions.
A material need not be tested to complete biodegradation to be considered biodegradable, however the percent of biodegradation validated in the test must be statistically significant and well beyond any additive percentage. (also the background gas production from the inoculum must be accounted for and subtracted from the results).
It is wonderful to see a judge astute enough to recognize the facts and stick with the science regardless of industry pressures and misconceptions!
Commercial compost in California has caused the loss of a hand-full of crops including; tomatoes, peas, sunflowers, vegetables and daisies. The culprit? Herbicides in the compost. But the herbicides may be the least of your worries. With the continual push to divert materials from landfills and instead utilize commercial composting, your compost is now likely to contain pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, prescription drugs, as well as a slew of other toxins and pathogens – all of which could put you at risk.
I personally have noticed a drastic change in the look and quality of “compost” and “potting soil” that I buy compared to 30 years ago. It used to be that the compost was a rich dark color soil, slightly moist and no recognizable fragments. Now what they sell is a light colored, dry material full of wood particles. It looks more like slightly processed mulch than soil. The material does not retain water and my potted plants have a very limited life cycle. This article points out some of the reasons why….
However, with all the contamination issues – Why does the industry continue to try and move more materials into the “compostable” zone? (i.e. plastics, paper, etc)