Circular Economy and Sustainable Materials Management – Is it Time to End the Divide?

by | Jun 20, 2016

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elisabethA paradigm shift with respect to how we think about the products and packaging we create, and how we go about managing them when they’re no longer useful, is underway. In the corporate sector, webinars, white papers and conference sessions are increasingly focused on how companies can move from a linear, take-make-dispose model to one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times1.Often referred to as the Circular Economy, this concept is nearly ubiquitous in sustainable business forums and is increasingly driving change in how materials are sourced and used in product manufacturing. We can already see this concept taking root in the private sector. A new wave of innovation is bringing the use of renewable materials from sustainably managed sources to the forefront of packaging and product manufacture and the boundaries of packaging optimization are being pushed to achieve a step-change in waste reduction—both with respect to the package itself and the product contained within.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and selected U.S. states are ramping up discussions of a related concept: Sustainable Materials Management (SMM). This concept, too, is pushing for a collective shift away from focusing solely on managing the disposal of products and packaging at end of life. When implemented, it broadens the analysis by looking at the materials that make up a package or product and considering how best to minimize waste and reduce environmental harm across its entire lifecycle: from design, to manufacture and use, to management at end of life. Developing actionable data, supportive policy and a focus on lifecycle thinking are at the heart of the EPA’s sustainable materials management strategy.

While there are certainly similarities between these conceptual approaches, there are important distinctions. Circular Economy initiatives are aimed at retooling business activity and boosting the economy itself so businesses are healthy and prosperous as a result of their restorative and regenerative use of resources. On the other hand, the focus of SMM primarily pertains to government-led policies and programs aimed at reducing waste (through upstream as well as downstream initiatives) and associated climate change impacts. While certainly there is interest in maintaining a healthy economy, SMM initiatives to date largely have been led by solid waste management agencies which address management of materials at end of life and are not focused on reinventing the economy.

At Tetra Pak, it is our belief that those involved in Circular Economy and SMM initiatives will achieve the best possible outcomes when working together where their two areas of focus intersect. A partnership approach, rather than working separately, will provide the greatest opportunity to identify strategies to accelerate the transition to a circular economy in a way that minimizes climate change impacts. It will be largely up to the private sector to redesign business practices to move the Circular Economy from concept to reality as they have begun to do. Government, however, can play a major role in fostering innovation, funding research to identify best practice approaches and adopting policies to help assure a level playing field and incentivize desired behavior change. Companies have an incredible amount of knowledge, expertise and insight to help shape this policy and provide input on how government can best support the corporate sector on what will be a very challenging journey of economic transformation.

We see material recovery systems as a prime candidate for this kind of collaboration. Recovery systems for recyclable materials have traditionally been operated as part of the waste management infrastructure and not as part of the supply chain that feeds future manufacturing processes. Resolving this disconnect can be achieved if government and industry work together to improve upstream material flows. In Phoenix, Arizona, a collaborative has been established across business and government as well as academia, resulting in the formation of the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN) operated by the City of Phoenix (which provided $2 million in seed funding), together with Arizona State University. The mission of RISN is to accelerate the transition towards circular material flows.  Public and private entities can partner with RISN to join the global network of sustainability-driven leaders who work on recovering valuable materials and energy from waste coming from municipal and commercial sources. These projects will be developed on an innovation incubation campus in Phoenix with direct access to feedstocks diverted from area disposal facilities. Partnerships such as this can be challenging to establish and may take time to achieve their full potential, but can serve to demonstrate the power of working together.

Corporate leaders are in the midst of a game-changing conversation about how business practices can be transformed to safeguard their license to operate against the dangers of climate change and resource scarcity. Governments are devising strategies to overhaul how materials are managed to safeguard citizens against those same dangers. Why not work together to meet our shared objectives?

1 Ellen McArthur Foundation –

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