“You’ve seen companies like Nike and Adidas ask ‘what if we no longer used water to dye our clothing?’ UPS asked ‘what if we no longer take left-hand turns?’” says Tom Carpenter, director of sustainability services for Waste Management.
Carpenter will be speaking about the what-ifs of eliminating waste at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. Recently we caught up with him to find out exactly what it means to embrace a circular economy, and the surprising benefits that result.
What does the circular economy mean to you?
Many people use the words ‘circular economy,’ but dig down into it and they’re really talking about recycling. The true balance of the circular economy is so much more. It’s placing value on materials beyond their first use phase, designing things that are more robust, and creating different business models.
How can circular economy thinking help businesses?
U.S. automotive approached this a long time ago looking at materials, the way they design, and closing loops back into other vehicle parts or byproducts. A good example is weld tips. As you’re building a vehicle, you’re welding the doors. A local company was used to remanufacture the tips to be used back on the same equipment, doubling the life. Not only does that avoid the purchase of those tips, but it adds jobs. Also you have more embodied energy going to the original use.
How is Waste Management improving operations by embracing the circular economy?
A long time ago, many landfills would create methane and, as the waste would decompose, that would just be flared off. At Waste Management’s landfills today, we’re capturing that methane. That methane turns a turbine, and it’s creating energy that goes back onto the grid.
We’re converting our vehicles from diesel to compressed natural gas. Every truck we replace reduces our use of diesel fuel by 8,000 gallons per year on average. CNG trucks emit nearly zero particulate emissions, cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 20%, and are quieter than diesel. On so many fronts it made good business sense.
Were there challenges facing your company as you were moving along with the transition?
In 2008, the EPA’s new diesel regulations created significant uncertainly. Diesel trucks were heavier, which reduced payload and increased emissions. When we first started embarking on the newer natural gas vehicles, they had a very poor track record. The engines were not proven, but we had a good partner. Cummins Westport convinced us to make the investment and backed the plan with a great warranty. They proved the technology out.
What challenges are facing your clients?
I lead our group called Sustainability Services. We’re onsite at roughly 175 different customers, managing every aspect of their waste. As we’ve worked with customers, many of them wanted to recycle more, divert more, but they typically get us to start in the dumpster. That’s too late.
We’ve had to go upstream. Then we could only do so much at the point of generation. If we truly want to influence the type of material, we saw that we needed to start working with the designers. The consultancy arm of our group has worked with companies on tweaking the design of new products and packaging to test recoverability in a real-life recycling environment. What happens to their product under compaction? Will their product end up in the correct material stream for recycling? Based on the findings, we advise on changes to material and shape.
How has design made a difference?
We had an automotive customer that was stamping out doors for their vehicles. Think of sugar cookies. As you cut those shapes, you’re left with dough. The same thing happens in metal stamping. Obviously at home it doesn’t go to waste — you make another cookie or eat it.
This metal stamper was doing the right thing. They would collect some of those pieces, stack it, and then put it in a scrap metal bin, where they would make pennies a pound on it. That steel is a thought-out, high quality material. That flat piece, while they could not use it, was big enough to sell. We helped them find a fan manufacturer that used it as a metal housing around the fan. Rather than just making pennies a pound, they were making dollars a pound.
What advice would you give a company that’s taking a hard look at their processes?
I always ask the question, What is your ‘what if’? Nike and Adidas now have T-shirts and other products that no longer use water. UPS drivers were idling, wasting time and fuel turning left. It took a bold person to sit up and say, ‘What if we no longer take left-hand turns?’ [UPS started using software in 2008 that optimizes routes to avoid left turns. This software saves the company $300 million –$400 million annually, according to CNN.]
What can we expect in the future?
Business professionals, engineers, and designers are all becoming part of the discussion. Hopefully we don’t continue to keeping changing terms. In the sustainability space we tend to invent a lot of new words, rather than speaking the language of the CEO, the CFO, the business manager or the operations manager. We need to be able to speak in business value terms.
Tom Carpenter will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His workshop, Circular Economies – Extracting Maximum Value Out of Resources, starts at 1 pm on June 5.