Four years ago, the United Nations sounded an alarm over the devastating impact the rising amount of material waste has on the planet.
Corporations extract natural resources and turn them into products and packaging that consumers typically use once and throw away. Between 2010 and 2017, the global material footprint grew 17 percent to 85.9 billion tons. After the U.N. in 2017 made ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the number of technology startups in the Techstars sustainability portfolio focused on developing materials innovations to enable manufacturers to design products and packaging with less material has been growing.
So, too, has the number of corporations who want to help these startups succeed.
They share our belief that entrepreneurs’ creativity and ingenuity is needed now more than ever to build the climate and sustainability solutions manufacturers need to reduce their products’ carbon footprints. By serving as mentors and collaborators to startups to accelerate the development of their solutions and grow their businesses, they’re helping turn the unsustainable linear product lifecycle model into a circle where materials are more easily recycled and reused.
By selecting items that are recyclable, and not making design decisions that would prevent recycling, you’re at least providing the opportunity that the product could be recycled.
Stanley Black & Decker, a global provider of hand and power tools and other products for myriad business and consumer applications, established the Stanley + Techstars Accelerator to support startups developing solutions for artificial intelligence (AI) in advanced manufacturing, additive manufacturing and sustainable packaging to help manufacturers make measurable progress on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.
Dan Fitzgerald, senior director of product sustainability at Stanley Black & Decker, said adopting more sustainable materials is one of many steps manufacturers can take today to make measurable progress on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. He recommends manufacturers begin by asking themselves two key questions:
- Are we putting materials out in the field that have a chance of seeing a second life?
- Are we using the lowest impact material to deliver the required function?
"By selecting items that are recyclable, and not making design decisions that would prevent recycling, you’re at least providing the opportunity that the product could be recycled," Fitzgerald said. "When you start searching for more sustainable materials, which are typically made of higher levels of recycled content, you know that your products reaching end of life have the opportunity to re-enter the supply chain and close the loop."
According to Fitzgerald, answering those two questions has enabled Stanley Black & Decker to launch a number of processes for designing products that require less material inputs while also recovering and repurposing resources to extract their maximum value. This includes finding more sustainable materials to put through a materials qualification process so they are available to the company’s product developers from a menu of approved materials and vendors.
Paired with a company-wide simplified life-cycle assessment tool currently under development, product engineers will be free to experiment with different material inputs, different levels of recycled content and different manufacturing processes to understand how their decisions affect impact. One of the many measurable successes the company can quantify is the reduction of its use of the synthetic plastic polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its packaging.
PVC is extremely versatile and used for a huge variety of applications including packaging such as shrinkwrap, blister and clamshell protective cases. But as this calculator developed by Doconomy to help manufacturers measure the carbon footprint of products and materials shows, PVC is three times more emissions-intensive per kg than cardboard:
- 1 kilogram of PVC = 3.1 kg of CO2e emissions
- 1 kg of cardboard = 0.96 kg of CO2e emissions
Stanley Black & Decker set a goal of reducing the quantities of PVC materials it uses for packaging because it’s not readily recyclable, but conversion to cardboard also comes with emissions benefits. According to its analysis, 7.3 metric tonnes of PVC per year were avoided by converting the packaging of 17 models of diamond cutting blades from PVC blisters to cardboard and replacing PVC face-sealed blister packages with ones made of 100 percent paper for six SKUs of tape measures.
The Heritage Group, a Techstars corporate partner that manages a diverse portfolio of operating companies in heavy construction and materials, environmental services and specialty chemicals, is another example of a large multinational company that has charged its in-house R&D resources with developing circular processes, including recovering and reusing materials in products and packaging.
Make a company-wide, top-down commitment around a meaningful material.
"Heritage’s sustainability report incorporates several circular economy objectives in our ESG metrics around four key pillars: people; profit; patrons; and planet," said Angie Martin, executive vice president at Heritage Environmental Services. "These include reducing energy use, decreasing internal consumption of resources and increasing the return on our assets."
Heritage Environmental’s materials reuse and reclamation practices include:
- Evaluating empty containers at its customers’ sites for the potential to be reclaimed and reused
- Operating its own industrial recycling facilities with employees onsite at customer locations to ensure their recycling programs are maintained at the highest levels of return and efficiency
- Processing universal and electronic wastes, including batteries, to extract valuable components as a means of diverting these wastes from land disposal
Additionally, Heritage has established the Heritage Group Hard Tech Accelerator Powered by Techstars, a mentorship-driven accelerator for innovative startups focused on sustainable materials and processes including repurposing plastic, reducing carbon emissions and increasing worker safety. Past graduates include developers of a recycled fiber for filtration and alternative protein production, and a safer, smarter construction lighting system.
"We are proud of our open innovation philosophies that allow us to partner with new technology companies and universities to meet the circular economy needs for our customers," said Ginger Rothrock of HG Ventures, Heritage’s corporate venture arm. "For example, Heritage works with Mobile Fluid Recovery to assist a large industrial customer in recycling and reusing their metal and oil waste stream." (Editor’s note: Mobile Fluid Recovery was part of the Techstars 2020 cohort.)
At Techstars, we see startups making exciting advancements in two key areas:
- Organic and environmental waste circularity: Companies such as Mobius and Craste use organic waste such as agricultural byproduct and paper mill residue to create biodegradable materials for products and packaging. Phoenix Tailings has developed new processes to maximize the amount of ore and metals extraction that can be generated from mining waste — tailings — that otherwise would be destined for large landfill tailing ponds.
- Carbon waste reduction and reuse: Vartega recycles carbon fiber from otherwise unclaimed or used carbon fiber and gives it a new life in products such as bicycle wheels and 3-D printing applications. Poliloop takes plastics that otherwise would be destined for landfills and uses a proprietary bacteria cocktail to biodegrade it into organic biomass which can be used as soil amendments. Pretred converts waste tires and plastics into construction barriers. Material Evolution creates a cement mix from 95 percent waste, making cement that is stronger and more durable with a significantly reduced carbon footprint.
Techstars advises large companies to allocate budget for piloting new technologies from technology startups that can help them convert existing waste streams into reusable materials, and replace carbon and waste-heavy primary materials in their product lines with alternative materials.
These investments will have a direct impact on the bottom line as consumer demand continues to grow for product innovation in these areas. Over time, large companies can and should start to develop these methods in-house. But when in exploration mode, setting aside budget dollars for conducting tests and trials with startups will enable them to move nimbly and with agility in these areas. This isn't an alternative to in-house R&D but is a supplementary part of it.
Stanley Black & Decker’s Fitzgerald adds that corporations also should employ experts who know how to source and work with startups in this area, some budget and funding for that team, and support from relevant teams who will be involved in these areas such as legal, finance and procurement.
"Make a company-wide, top-down commitment around a meaningful material," Fitzgerald said. "By meaningful, I mean a scientifically supported commitment on a material that contributes a lot of emissions to your company profile, or one that is important to your customers such as packaging. Setting this goal, even without a clear plan for how to get there, will drive significant exploration, analysis and innovation in response to the goal."