The Future of Recycling, Waste Management is Resource Management, Experts Say
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
Source: Environmental Leader
Earlier this year Waste Management CEO David Steiner declared the US recycling industry is facing a “nationwide crisis” as recycling facilities increasingly lose money and demand plummets for recyclables. And while it’s not a new debate, John Tierney’s latest New York Times opinion piece — similar to his 1996 “Recycling is Garbage” article — argues recycling it too costly and isn’t benefiting the environment.
Whether it’s profitable or not, recycling must go on because of the imbalance between limited natural resources and human material demand, says Lux Research analyst Jerrold Wang. “In the short term future, recycling of some materials are profitable, while some are not. But in the long term, government will continue imposing tax on the materials, which have environmental influence during exploitation and landfill, just like what they did for tire. And these regulatory tax or incentive will make recycling profitable.”
Life Cycle Costs
David Dornfeld, the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley who also leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability, says Tierney’s opinion pieces and similar articles miss the point.
“There are a couple of things these articles don’t pay attention to,” Dornfeld says. Attacks on recycling ignore the value of a circular economy and don’t consider the other life cycle impacts, which include environmental impacts, he says.
“If you weight the total life cycle cost of those resources, if you have a greenhouse gas emissions trail than the life cycle cost must consider that as well,” Dornfeld says. “So these very simple closed-loop, very narrow economic analysis doesn’t stand up very well.”
Circular Economy Gaining Momentum
The circular economy concept — which emphasizes keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting maximum value from them while in use and then recovering and repurposing products and materials at the end of life — is increasingly gaining strength among sustainability professionals. The Ethical Corporation says it’s the no. 2 biggest opportunity in 2015/2016 (industry collaboration is no. 1), according to its Top Global Supply Chain Sustainability Trends 2015 whitepaper, which includes responses from 415 corporate social responsibility and supply chain professionals from around the world.
Companies including Google and Dell are partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help drive the circular economy through initiatives such as Dell’s closed-loop recycled plastics supply chain, for example, which has seen the company recycle 4.2 million pounds of closed-loop plastics into enclosures for new Dell products.
“For too long, the value has been simply put on recycling with no concern for what that material is and if it has a valuable second or even third life,” says Stacy Glass, vice president, built environment, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “Recycling is dealing with the problems of past design. We need to change the emphasis to be: safe ingredients, perpetually cycled, design in ways that harmonize with humans and the environment. The future is nutrient management, not waste management.”
To help manufactures design materials and products that promote the circular economy, Cradle to Cradle last year launched the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program. “Let’s design to eliminate the concept of waste, not just reduce waste,” Glass says.
Opportunities in Emerging Technology
Dornfeld points to companies like carpet tile manufacturer Interface, which turns discarded fishing nets into recycled material for carpet tiles, and home products company Method, which sells hand and dish soap in bottles made from plastic recovered from the ocean. “There’s tremendous opportunities for companies to come up with business systems or technologies that allow us to extract more resources form the waste stream, or separate them earlier on, or design the product to be remanufactured without essentially having to essentially trash it and then recover materials,” Dornfeld says.
Emerging technologies will also advance the waste management and recycling industry, Wang says. Lux Research forecasts industry consolidation “which will rule out the small and poor recyclers and only make the large firms (with wide geographic coverage and strong data analytic) survive.
“The waste management industry relies on material science innovation and big data, and the companies use these two tools well will win the competition,” Wang continues. “Material science innovation will help recyclers know how to smartly use their waste stream to make valuable products, which is to improve profitability of these companies. Big data guides recyclers about how they can optimize their supply chain and realize low cost in the whole process of waste material collection, waste processing, and recycled material delivery to customers.”