Bending the Line and Closing the Loop: Demystifying the Circular Economic System

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It has widely been held that a consumer product’s end of life has the highest environmental impact in its life cycle. We can see materials building up in landfills and having devastating effects on wildlife. Until recently, attention has been placed on the waste itself – how to divert it and minimize it? But life-cycle analyses of many consumer products reveals that our focus should instead be placed on the raw material’s extraction and on the manufacturing of the product. The question should be: how do we build a product to remove waste streams entirely?

CBSR had the pleasure of hosting Mikhael Metauro of Cascades Recovery+ at last month’s Professional Network Group call, who offered insights about how creating a single definition of “circular economy” can help organizations eliminate their waste streams and develop closed-loop business models.

Waste management legislation

We will never achieve a waste-free world if we continue to focus exclusively on waste management. Luckily, governments are committing not only to recycling programs, but to establishing circular economies.

Ontario’s 2016 Strategy for Waste-Free Ontario, for instance, includes the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, which aims to tackle the problem of waste generation head-on. The legislation dictates that producers are now responsible for the end-of-life management of the products and packaging that they sell to consumers.

This legislation is a positive step in the right direction for companies like Cascades, who are focused on a closed loop business model. “It’s not waste, it’s untapped resources” Metauro says, “imagine a world where we view everything as a recyclable; this is what we do at Cascades and its our duty to find an end market for those materials”

A single, complete definition

While there is awareness of the issue, as the Strategy for Waste-Free Ontario demonstrates, a single definition of “circular economy” remains elusive. We need one definition that is consistent across governments and industries if we are to action real, measurable change in waste generation. “Circular thinking has to be a way of life, not a fad,” Metauro insists.

If it is just a fad, it is better to move on and discover the next thing. A circular economy takes work; while there are going to be benefits and efficiencies created, there will be costs elsewhere. As such, Cascades works with and educates brand owners to help them define and support the larger circular economy.

The Polystyrene Foam case

Take, for example, the Polystyrene Foam meat tray. There is an undefined end market for recovered curbside polystyrene foam, and trays made from virgin materials currently cost less than those produced in a circular system.

Despite this, Cascades has proven – through rigorous life cycle analysis – that Polystyrene Foam trays with recycled content have a lesser impact on the environment than the ones made without recycled content. Polystyrene foam is recyclable and can be put back into the market. The company’s Evok Polystyrene Foam tray contains 25 per cent recycled polystyrene and reduces its environmental impact by 15 and 20 per cent, depending on the manufacturing location, when compared with trays made from 100 per cent virgin materials.

This focus on the production as opposed to end-of-life is key in establishing circular economies. Cascades’ life cycle analysis (LCA) of its Polystyrene Foam packaging revealed that the largest environmental impact did not come from the end of life of the trays, but from the manufacturing: from raw material extraction to the forming of the trays. Therefore, the trays that use fewer resources and more renewable energy are generally the most environmentally friendly ones.

The best way to improve the trays’ ecological scorecard is to reduce the use of virgin material and enhance its recycled content. The manufacturing plants are already energy efficient and capitalize on the grid mix to lessen its impact when renewable energies sources are available.

Despite these successes, closing the loop by using recycled materials takes more than just one company for feed-stock supply and to enable the industry as whole to reduce its impact.

A collaborative approach

A circular economy must be collaborative and must commit under one definition. Achieving circular has many benefits, but it also comes at a cost, and all parties involved need to be prepared to share that cost.

In our current system, waste streams are inevitable even in companies like Cascades, although our foam plants generate less than 1% of waste. Cascades manages discarded materials and analyzes “waste streams” to help build stronger recovery programs in the future. Why is that material there? Where did it come from? Is it from one brand owner? This analysis allows Cascades to start a conversation with a brand owner and tackle the ‘waste’ head-on.

Achieving a circular economy will not be easy. “We have a long way to go to see things that are typically discarded as being a resource instead of waste,” Metauro says. And it all starts by challenging the end.

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