In the Loop

Safe and round: How healthier materials factor into a circular economy

circles and molecules
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

Did you know that the air inside of homes and offices is often more unhealthful than the air outdoors? This is due in large part to the chemicals — including but not limited to VOCs — in products, furniture, carpeting, paints, adhesives and the like. To me, this is staggering, but it’s easy to feel removed from broad facts such as this one.

Questionable contamination has been found in unassuming everyday items as well, such as Tupperware containers, cocktail stirrers and even children’s toys. These items are often made of black plastics recycled from consumer electronics and contain unexpected additives harmful to human health.

Of course, context is key. Bromine, for example, is added to a television’s plastic casing to prevent flammability, and similar ingredients are used to enhance performance such as durability or color in products. A TV doesn’t need to achieve a food-grade health standard. But the second life of black plastic offers a great example of an unfortunate outcome: when products are not designed for their next life, materials that may be appropriate for one application can end up where they don’t belong. And out of context, these materials can negatively affect human health.

The aim of a circular economy goes beyond simply keeping molecules in play. According to Emma Williams, acting head of communications at Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII), "Using materials that can be perpetually moved through continuous cycles of use and reuse is a key underpinning of the circular economy."

But if healthy materials were an easy fix, then product designers, manufacturers and engineers would already would be making these choices. Compounded by a widespread lack of ingredient transparency and concerns about intellectual property in product formulas, conventional, sometimes problematic material choices are predictable, cheap and widely available. However, C2CPII believes that making this shift and designing out harmful materials can be easier than designers might think.

In an effort to support companies in their shift to healthier material choices, this week, C2CPII, in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), added a "Safe and Circular" toolbox to the Circular Design Guide, a design-thinking resource developed by global design firm IDEO and EMF that launched last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

According to the new Design Guide modules, choosing safer materials should be a consideration throughout the design process, rather than an afterthought. The open-source guide explores the importance of safer and circular material choices, the role of designers in making these choices and the potential for companies to advance their material health goals.

The environmental implications of material selection are significant as well, and eliminating hazardous chemicals in supply chains will be a key driver to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals No. 3, No. 6 and No. 12. The Chemical Footprint Project (CFP), a material benchmarking tool, suggests that companies also have strong incentives to design out hazardous materials from their products including regulatory requirements, customer demands and product recalls. According to Zach Freeze, senior director for sustainability at Walmart, "CFP is making data available for benchmarking and gap analysis, which are critical for us to understand where our company and our suppliers are on the journey to more sustainable chemicals.”

In 2017, Walmart committed to reducing its chemical footprint, with a goal of cutting chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment (CoHCs) by 55 million pounds by 2022. Other participants in CFP — companies including Levi Strauss & Co, Gojo and HP Inc. — represent $2.78 trillion in assets under management and over $700 billion in purchasing power.

There’s already encouraging signs that companies are rethinking the role of many chemicals in their products and packaging. "In many ways, we have reached a tipping point where chemical transparency and investment in safer chemistry is the norm for forward-looking, sustainability-minded companies," said Joel Tickner, founder of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, a network of 70 companies dedicated to promoting safer products, in an interview last year. "While a more laissez-faire regulatory environment may impact the willingness of lagging firms to improve their toxics reduction programs, the market, state and regulatory drivers are encouraging sectoral and value chain efforts to advance safer chemistry will continue."

Whatever the driver, open-source resources such as these offer companies the practical tools and frameworks required to design safer and more circular products.

Want to learn more about materials in the circular economy? We’ll discuss safe and circular design in a workshop at VERGE Circular in Oakland next month, and you can register here using the code V18CW for a 10 percent discount, exclusive to readers of this newsletter.