A one-dimensional focus on managing waste at end-of-life can have the unintended affect of blinding a company to oftentimes more impactful phases of the lifecycle. Recycling is a highly visible, feel-good activity that is easy to take part in, and curbside programs and single-stream collection have increased the convenience level to an all-time high. This has led to the pervasive assumption that higher recycling rates should always be the overarching goal, which fails to make meaningful distinctions between different recovery options or to consider other means by which a broader set of environmental outcomes might be realized.
Over the past decade, two broader materials management concepts have emerged that aim to change this, according to a white paper from Call2Recycle.
Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is the first. Primarily under discussion in the US, SMM aims to broaden the mindset from one that is focused narrowly on managing waste at the end of the chain to one that considers the lifecycle impacts of a product or material with respect to all three pillars of sustainability: environment, economy and society. It calls for reduction where possible and calls on society to use and reuse materials more productively over their entire lifecycles while minimizing toxicity and all associated environmental impacts.
Its emergence was driven by the increasing complexity and interrelatedness of environmental problems. In this new reality, tradeoffs are unavoidable. Evaluating different methods of managing materials must therefore take into account a much broader set of objectives to balance trade offs and avoid unintended consequences. A key question as this discussion unfolds will be what those objectives are and who ultimately is charged with decision-making.
Circular Economy is the second. Popularized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy replaces the “take-make-waste” model with a restorative model that aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, at all times and decouples economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources through reuse, repair, refurbishment and recycling.
Circular Economy (CE) and Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) concepts are overlapping. They both strive to preserve natural capital by making better use of resources. What distinguishes the two concepts is the emphasis in the CE dialogue on the role of companies in creating restorative economic systems that keep materials in a constant loop of production. SMM, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of government working in partnership with others to achieve economic, social and environmental goals and creating solutions that optimize all three areas.
CE is a widely-used concept in Europe and is at the center of the European Commission’s waste management and green growth strategy as a means to create synergies between previously disconnected policy arenas. In North America, Circular Economy is the term du jour in corporate circles, perhaps given its relevency to major multi-national companies participating in the CE 100 network. The SMM agenda is in its infancy in the US and is being driven by government at both the state and federal levels and to a lesser extent by the NGO community.
These two concepts have broadened the conversation about waste management and prompted the business world to re-examine its priorities and confront certain biases. One such bias is the tendency to focus on recycling above all else and view all forms of recycling as inherently equal. This has resulted in policies that reward higher and higher recycling rates despite the impact that pursuit may have on cost, the release of greenhouse gases and toxics, and other considerations.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this new way of analyzing material choices may lead companies to settle on lower rungs of the hierarchy in order to maximize environmental outcomes elsewhere in the product lifecycle.
The goals behind materials management may change depending on the person (a recycling manager responding to their constituents may be motivated by different goals than a packaging producer, for instance); but from a macro perspective, the goal might be to recover materials in order to reduce pollution and maintain stable supplies of materials to produce the goods and services the world relies on long into the future.
With this in mind, it might be in a company’s best interest to accelerate the transition to a SMM approach, replacing a somewhat myopic focus on recycling with lifecycle thinking that includes recycling as a means to an end but not the end in and of itself.
Call2Recycle has published a white paper about the myriad issues organizations face in terms of responsible management of the end-of-life products. It goes on to explore the benefits companies can realize when recycling is no longer looked at in a vacuum but as part of a larger system of continuous product life cycles.