Is the ship of sustainability finally altering course so decisions are based on data and science? If we head the advice of Kent, we may just make some progress.
The 2018 Future Smarts Conference brought forth some eye-opening topics, not the least of which was the presentation by Muhtar Kent, Former CEO and current Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Coca-Cola Company, who surprised many attendees by calling on the industry to take action on sustainability by creating biodegradable bottles and collection systems.
“We have got to do a lot better in waste, we have got to do a lot better in innovation, we have got to do a lot better in social value creation,” Kent said. “I plead to the industry to do a lot more in these areas.”
With the current state of recycling and environmental issues surrounding plastics, Kent isn’t the only one looking beyond traditional recycling as a solution to this looming problem.
Switzerland is no longer pushing plastic recycling,
China, the largest user of recycled plastic implemented Green Fence effectively banning the import of recycled plastics,
just last month, Malaysia banned imports of plastic waste,
US cities are pulling back recycling programs to include far fewer items, and
the largest recycler in the US, Waste Management, has proclaimed that ‘combining effective recycling with landfill gas recovery provides the best bang for the buck’.
Overall the use of biodegradable plastics that are proven to biodegrade effectively in our current collection system (which is a landfill), just makes sense. We have a very effective collection system that keeps plastics out of our oceans. And, landfill biodegradable plastics increase the production of biogas in the landfill. These landfills have already built the collection system to capture the biogas and are returning the biogas to our communities for powering vehicles, homes and businesses.
So, Kent has it mostly right. We, as an industry, need to put more effort into using packaging that is landfill biodegradable.
Actually, let’s put all our effort into using landfill biodegradable plastics because the collection systems are already in place and the conversion systems for the biogas to energy are also already in place.
The past few years have been tumultuous for the entire recycling industry, as 2018 comes to a close we are left with warehouses filled with unwanted (but collected) recyclate, high contamination rates, recyclate being dumped in the landfill, and more recycling facilities closing their doors as profits dwindle. This is a bleak outlook for recycling if we continue with “business as usual”. Fortunately, some communities are taking a stand against the misdirection pushed by mega brands across the globe. These communities are changing the conversation in an effort to save recycling.
Cities across the nation like Mesa, AZ and Akron, OH recognize that one of the most impactful decisions a consumer can make regarding the recycling industry, is not what should go in the recycle bin but more importantly what should NOT go in the recycle bin. The message is clear “When in Doubt, Keep it Out” – only put metal cans, clean boxes, bottles, jugs, jars, and clean paper in the recycle bin.
ANYTHING ELSE BELONGS IN THE TRASH CAN.
The key is to reduce contamination in recycling so that recyclers can be profitable and the environmental value can be maximized. Without this, the recycling industry is destined for failure.
Interestingly, this move is contrary to what many mega brands have as their sustainability goals and are marketing to consumers. These brands haphazardly slap the words “recyclable” on everything from candy wrappers to coffee pods – none of which should ever go in your recycle bin. Companies that label their unrecyclable packaging with the term “recyclable” are a major cause of the collapse of recycling. They prey on consumers desire to help the environment, while causing the opposite.
Any company looking to effectively address waste must consider where their product should be discarded and how it can create maximum value. While this may mean keeping the recycling message on select products, it also means considering other solutions that provide value such as conversion to energy for the vast majority of products.
And, communicate honestly to consumers – stop asking them to put unrecyclables into their recycle bin.
In the past 50 years, measuring the sustainability of plastic packaging has been centralized on recyclability. This multi-billion-dollar effort has resulted in less than 10% of plastics being recovered and recycled. As the field of sustainability is maturing, the approach is evolving to a more holistic approach that considers the environmental impact of the product throughout its entire life-cycle. An encompassing approach is critical in making sound decisions that have impact, however not everyone is on board and some that represent the recycling industry are in a downright panic.
In a recent interview discussing sustainability of plastics, Steve Alexander, executive director of APR, states; “Frankly, there is no sustainability without recycling.”. Steve pointed to brand owners making recycling-related commitments and expressed concern that there may be less importance placed on recycling as other sustainability factors are considered. Alexander emphasized that he wants “companies and consumer brands to continue their commitment to utilizing recycling.”
While I understand that Alexander’s job and the entire APR organization’s existence is completely dependent on the continued focus on recycling as the primary directive of sustainability, it is disheartening to see such a blatant disregard for achieving more sustainable communities. The hard-line approach by APR that recycling is the basis of sustainability demonstrates the complete refusal to accept the complex nature of sustainability and the science and data behind sustainable materials management.
Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is an approach that evaluates a product across the entire life-cycle; sourcing, manufacturing, use and discard. SMM has provided alarming insight to many traditional approaches that while appeared beneficial were in fact environmentally detrimental. It is this reason that the EPA, waste companies and many brands are shifting from the archaic simplistic approach of simply recycling to the encompassing approach of SMM that utilizes science and data to drive true environmentally sustainable approaches.
Contrary to what Alexander and APR may promote, from a full life-cycle analysis approach, recycling is not synonymous with sustainability. In most instances, converting from recyclable rigid packaging into non-recyclable multi-layer flexible packaging is the optimal solution. There are some specific instances where using recyclable packaging is more beneficial, but this is not the majority.
As sustainability leaders, each of us must be willing to question traditional approaches and adopt methods that provide measurable results which are validated with data to provide environmental value. We must follow the science and data to create a sustainable future. And, we must at times make difficult decisions and admit when we have taken the wrong approach – even when it doesn’t benefit our pocketbook.
It borderlines dangerous and irresponsible to push solutions simply because consumers feel they are sustainable when in fact they have a significant negative environmental and financial impact to the environment and our communities.
The question I have for Alexander and APR is:
“Are you an advocate for sustainability or for your personal interests?”
Your actions and statements seem to provide a clear answer.
Last week I was reading the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) assessment that the EU will need to invest up to $12 Billion (€10 Billion) to innovate and expand the separate collection, sorting and recycling capacity to reach the EU landfill diversion targets for plastic packaging.
I had to pause and reread the figure; $12,000,000,000??
I understand the desire to increase recycling, but at what cost do we stop pushing blindly forward and begin to compare the alternatives?
Let’s just look at the numbers:
The latest report from PlasticsEurope states that there was a total of 16.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste in the EU. 6.8 million tonnes of it was recycled. That leaves 9.9 million tonnes that would still need to be recycled to reach the proposed 100% recycling of plastic packaging. According to FEAD it will cost up to $12 billion to build the infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle this 9.9 million tonnes using traditional recycling methods.
This breaks down to an annual cost of $1200 per tonne to recycle this material. Even if they were to expand that expense over 10 years of recycling plastic packaging, it would still cost $120 per tonne.
As an alternative, let’s calculate the numbers when designing plastic packaging with the existing infrastructure in mind. Most plastic packaging is discarded into a landfill. Modern technology allows for plastics to be converted into biogas within these landfills. Subsequently, the landfills are currently harnessing this biogas for auto fuel and energy. The result is recycling waste plastic by conversion to energy.
Sounds like a simple solution, but do the numbers add up?
Incorporating the technology to recycle plastics to biogas costs an average of $120 per tonne. The infrastructure and collection are already in place so there is no additional expense. The value of the biogas energy produced is $550 per tonne. This leaves a net income of $430 per tonne of plastic packaging. For 9.9 million tonnes of plastic packaging the income would be $4,300,000,000 each year. Expanding that over 10 years would be a net benefit of $43 Billion.
So, the question: Is it better to spend $12 billion for traditional recycling or earn $43 billion by combining traditional recycling with energy recycling?
(And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that LCA analysis shows that most plastic recycling is not environmentally beneficial, nor can plastics be effectively recycled indefinitely. But, that is a subject for another article….)
We recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with a fantastic host and avid environmentalist, Peter Arpin, on The Business Side of Green. The topics ranged from how to improve recycling, what plastics belong in composting and how plastics increase renewable energy. There was even discussion about why the Circular Economy can be at odds with sustainability and how to bring these two methodologies into a synergistic solution. Throughout the show was an overarching theme of ‘thinking differently’ about plastic.
If you make plastics, use plastics or think about plastics (we all do!), this is a must listen to episode.
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