Meet a new circular vision to maximize value from waste

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How can we reframe the value of waste? The Cascading Materials Vision aims to find out — and plug it into the equation of preserving natural resources while saving companies money. 

It brings together the recycling industry with other stakeholders, including leading brands such as Ball Corporation, Coca-Cola and Nestle, along with policymakers and environmental nonprofits to follow a framework of guiding principles that will help businesses source secondary materials.

The World Wildlife Fund launched the program in June in partnership with the American Chemistry Council, the Recycling Partnership, Ball, Keurig Green Mountain, McDonald's, Nestle, the Ocean Conservancy and others.

Participants at our VERGE 17 event last week in Silicon Valley took a look at how to make materials "pay it forward" during a panel which, under Chatham House Rule, brought together stakeholders to collaborate on extracting more value for their organizations.

"The vision acts as a roadmap for companies, supply chain members, waste management providers and NGOs to increase their collective ability to retain the value of secondary materials while remaining flexible to the changes and innovations that may occur in the future," said Erin Simon, director of sustainability research and development at WWF.

The Cascading Materials Vision provides a platform for managing materials effectively. It acts as a complement to the circular economy, which keeps molecules "in play" by keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting their maximum value, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of a product's life.

The vision seeks to help organizations that already participate in the circular economy to scale the use of recycled materials by offering a structured access pathway from the curbside bin to the factory floor. The hope: That valuing secondary materials, those which already have been used, can transform the economy while reducing industry's burden on natural systems. Efficient waste management can cut greenhouse gases by 10 to 15 percent, while recycling plastic packaging can save up to $120 billion annually, according to the WWF.

"The recyclability of metal packaging is a big focus for us," said Adam Shalapin, sustainability manager at Ball Corporation, in a separate interview. "End-of-life management is essential to reducing the environmental impacts of our products. Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy required to make a product from primary aluminum [compared to virgin aluminum] and is essential to reducing carbon emissions."

As the price of a material rises with the energy intensity of procuring it, sourcing previously used metals are a business win, according to the following chart from the WWF. 

WWF

"We are reducing life-cycle carbon emissions of our products and actively helping our customers reduce their supply chain greenhouse gas emissions," said Shalapin. "It protects our supply chains and gives us a competitive edge." 

Highest utility

The companies and organizations that signed up to the vision agree to a set of decision-making principles for materials management practices, and the platform promotes dialogue around the challenges and helping them build public-private collaborations to address issues.

"The Cascading Materials Vision promotes finding solutions that optimize the value created from resources by ensuring materials are used for the most technically demanding application first and reused, recycled or recovered as is appropriate to extract as much utility as possible," said the WWF's Simon. It also lays out how these materials can be accessed.

"The entire value chain has shared responsibility for the end-of-life of their products, but also shared opportunity to benefit from value created to through better materials management and increased access to secondary materials," stated the WWF.

Responsibility extends to the health, safety and welfare of local communities, waste workers and the public, because success depends on the actions of local people and an inclusive planning process. Materials recovery begins on the home front, with more than 22 million tons of unrecovered packaging still in U.S. single-family homes.

The framework also addresses effective policy-making that supports programs for waste recovery.

"When the local governments are engaged in the recycling program and have triggered an 'action' to incentivize recycling is when you see the most success," states WWF.

Other guiding principles of the Cascading Materials Vision rest on measuring the value and effectiveness of waste collection projects; sharing responsibility, accountability and value creation across sectors; creating adaptable solutions that can respond to changes in technology; and connecting product design and waste minimization.

"For established organizations, participating in the circular economy is easier," said Simon. "For other smaller organizations, it's more fragmented."

Laying out a roadmap that links the flow of recycled materials between municipalities, waste management facilities, companies and manufacturers helps each sector maximize the value and life cycle of waste.

"We are not trying to coordinate it, but creating a common framework that other initiatives can form under," said Simon.

Ball's work with the program already aligns with its recycling partnerships and internal life cycle assessment work.

"The aluminum supply chain is unique in that it is well established," he said. "Although the end-use market for aluminum beverage cans is well defined, [the vision] helps us focus on further improving the capture rate of materials to enter that end market."

It also helps bring together Ball's team and suppliers around one goal: "We want to make sure all members of the value chain are working along guiding principles together, and not a mile wide and an inch deep."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Ball Corporation manufactures glass jars. It is a provider of metal packaging for beverages, food, household products and aerospace technology.