Can circular thinking set us free from the 'recycling religion'?

WM Forum
As blasphemous as it may sound, some things just shouldn't be recycled. Onstage are John Tierney, author and The New York Times science writer; Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary and now co-host of The Five on Fox News Channel; Adam Minter, author and columnist at Bloomberg.

Recycling waste is more trouble than it’s worth, according to John Tierney, author and New York Times science writer, in his widely read and contested Op-Ed, "The Reign of Recycling."

"The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing," he concluded in October. "How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?"

But Tierney spoke of recycling with a slightly more moderate tone Thursday at the 2016 Waste Management Executive Sustainability Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. WM produced the event, which GreenBiz hosted and livecasted.

Tierney conceded that "recycling does make sense for some materials at some times in some places. ... My problem is with what I called the 'recycling religion.' The idea that recycling is an inherently virtuous activity, that the more we do of it the better, and that the ultimate goal should be achieving zero waste."

At the forum, business, government and nonprofit leaders explored the idea that cities, companies and consumers should break free of their zealotry for recycling and open their minds to rethink waste from a more holistic perspective.

Moving beyond ‘recycle or die’

"It shouldn’t be 'recycle or die,'" said David Allaway, senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "Not everything should be recycled, and some things should be landfilled. ... It’s not recycling for the sake of recycling, but recycling to achieve an environmental outcome."

Most modern recycling programs measure success through waste diverted from landfills — using weight as the unit of measurement. But not all materials have the same environmental impacts.

Given the predominant "recycling religion," the assertion that the recyclable material isn’t always the best environmental choice might sound like heresy. But if the entire lifecycle of a product is considered, this actually can make a lot of sense.

"Sometimes the best choice in packaging is to use something that isn’t as recyclable but has lower upstream impacts," Allaway said. In certain situations, for example, the best choice we have is to choose a material that has low upstream impacts and then sending it to the landfill.

Enter material management — that is, taking actions across the entire lifecycle of materials to reduce the impacts across the entire lifecycle of materials. According to Allaway, this broader view can give organizations a larger toolbox to use limited resources to make better decisions. A cornerstone of materials management is waste prevention through circular thinking.

While the circular economy has become somewhat of a buzzword in sustainability circles, its emphasis on viewing waste as nutrients has profound power to create production models that reduce reliance on raw materials by continuously cycling materials of all types back through supply chains — in other words: closing the loop.

"It isn’t one loop, but a series of loops from different systems," said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader at Dow. "The circular economy can benefit society by taking waste from one loop and putting it into another."

Starbucks' systems-based approach to recycling

"I would define the circular economy by using the word ‘economy,'" said Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks.

The coffee chain has taken a systems-based approach to recycling, with an emphasis on upstream impacts. After hearing from its customers and employees that recycling coffee cops was a top priority, Starbucks established the goal of diverting 100 percent of its waste from its company-owned stores by 2015.

But achieving this was easier said than done.

"One of the things we discovered early on is that recycling is a hyperlocal issue, and for a global company our ability to have global targets and execute them at a hyperlocal level is a challenge," Hanna said.

Starbucks faced a patchwork of recycling infrastructure and market conditions. Likewise, many of its store’s landlords control the waste collection and decide whether they want to provide recycling. These challenges require customizing recycling programs to each store and market, and may limit the company’s ability to offer recycling in some stores.

One key way Starbucks worked around this was by trying to increase the recyclability of its paper coffee cups, which Hanna said makes up the largest part of the company’s carbon footprint.

Starbucks engaged its paper suppliers to tinker with its cups. The results turned out positive: Paper mills came up with a way to recycle the cups, and profitably. Starbucks then was able to tell cities they should recycle their cups because there’s a willing buyer.

Despite its efforts, Starbucks failed to meet its waste diversion goal — just over 50 percent of its stories have achieved zero waste. Echoing Tierney, Hanna said that companies striving to achieve zero waste isn’t "realistic or ideal."

Better metrics for recycling

Admirable as it may be to divert waste from landfills, our singular focus on this as a success metric may have blinded us from other negative environmental impacts — particularly upstream.

"We need better metrics we can all agree on," Hanna said. "Carbon dioxide should be one of these metrics."

When thinking about food waste, for example, significantly more greenhouse gases are generated producing food than emitted by food rotting in a landfill, according to Allaway. If we reduce the impacts upstream, this could multiply the desirable environmental outcomes downstream.

Climate change isn’t the only environmental impact — others are related to health, energy and the economy. If we equate circular economics with recycling, we may continue down the same unsustainable path that got us into our current predicament in the first place.

"One of the things that worries me about the circular economy is that it could be a red herring that prevents us from addressing the fundamental unsustainability of our systems of production and consumption," Allaway said.

"I would rather see us recycle fewer things well, than more things poorly."

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