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Sustainability Talks

How the Circular Economy Enables Supply Chain Innovation & Resilience

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Implementing a systematic change can seem daunting, but nearly every significant disruption starts with seemingly minor – but ultimately fundamental – changes to the foundation. While a transformation as seismic as a fully realized commitment to the circular economy may seem impossible on the surface, it can progress far more quickly through a commitment from organizations to make seemingly small but impactful modifications in key areas.

Supply chains are one such area ripe for this shift to a more circular approach. Critical to success, and very important to me personally, will be capturing the value in used plastics and converting it into new products of all kinds. Our supply chains offer robust opportunities to do this while ensuring waste does not end up in the environment. And through the circular impact of this approach, our supply chains are becoming more innovative and resilient. To achieve better resilience, we must take a holistic view of the system, rather than trying to isolate individual parts of the system. Developing products that can be used for multiple purposes, and then identifying many more uses for those products beyond their initial concept, will allow us to create a system that is both circular and resilient. It’s all about the system.

Resiliency is a mindset – it’s time to begin thinking of waste as an opportunity

The most fundamental way to change how supply chains can drive more circularity is also the simplest – rethinking how we look at waste from easily discarded leftovers to reusable building material. A prime example is in the green tech industry where companies are taking the waste already in the supply chain and turning it into new materials. For example, GreenMantra Technologies, based in Ontario, CA, upcycles post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastics, which can include shopping bags or dried-up markers. It converts these into synthetic polymers and additives for industrial applications, such as asphalt and roof shingles. In that same vein, Artis Wall, a brand of Waddell Manufacturing, uses reclaimed wood planks for installation on barn walls. The construction company utilizes a unique Velcro system to install the new plank into the old ones, restoring the barn with reclaimed wood without damaging the walls. I have a beautiful dining room table made from teak wood that was reclaimed from a church in Mexico.

We know that the fastest way to change the mindset of business leaders is to not only show that something is the right thing to do – but also show that it’s good for business. It will be critical that companies are properly incentivized to ensure waste from the building is repurposed in a responsible and efficient way. For instance, one key component of this is transportation, where companies can now use connecting software to help ensure there’s enough waste material in transport to make it economically viable.

Necessity is the mother of invention – the needs of today will drive a more sustainable tomorrow

The pandemic has caused an unprecedented change to how and where people spend their daily lives. At the same time, it has forced us to rethink how we can be more sustainable amid the new normal. Perhaps the most notable area where the need for reinvention has been forced upon us all is around the workplace. COVID-19 has sparked a host of commercial office renovations, but at a time with greater limitations on traditional approaches to construction. This has resulted in many builders leaning in more to the notion of modular construction, a process which involves sites getting created and assembled in a factory where there’s more control over the construction process. This has increased the use of precast concrete, which is created entirely in a factory setting with much more consistent environmental conditions than with site-cast concrete. The result is less waste and minimal negative impact on air quality. Precast concrete can also be made from recycled materials, thus reducing the demolition waste and contributing to a more circular supply chain.  

Similarly, in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in extreme weather events driving demand for greater home protection but in ways that would have minimal impact on the environment to mitigate further accelerating these events. A natural solution to this has been vinyl siding (polypropylene siding and insulated vinyl siding, too), which lends itself to a closed loop process because it is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This thermoplastic can be ground up repeatedly, re-melted and formed into a variety of new products even after the useful life of the product. In fact, the trimmings, shavings, color changes and rejected vinyl that results during the manufacturing process are simply ground up and used again to create new siding or other products. This is in stark contrast to the exclusion of PVC from recycling of packaging, which happens because the PVC ends up as a minor component and highly detrimental contaminant in PET, which is abundant and easy to recycle.

A closed loop requires new approaches and contributions from all parts of the supply chain.

Until recently, end-of-life product management was generally the responsibility of a small number of firms. With the pandemic accelerating already fast-changing customer expectations and increased product take-back regulations, many organizations are being forced to consider how to recycle within their supply chains.

Brand owners and retailers play a significant role, but so can many other players in the supply chain. For example, material suppliers are evaluating different grades of recycled-content resins for their customers. This could create a market for a large volume of recycled materials and dramatically increase their usage. One example is Armstrong World Industries, which takes back mineral fiber tiles from buildings after they have reached their end of use and turns them into new ceiling tiles at their manufacturing facilities.

In addition, large packaging converters like Berry Global and Sealed Air are looking to use recycled content to assist their customers as they strive to meet PCR and sustainability goals. Together, these efforts play a role in fostering a more innovative and resilient supply chain.

This past year has reinforced just how critical a resilient supply chain truly is – especially during a crisis that impacts the entire global economy. As we continue to navigate through the challenges brought on by the pandemic – and build towards a more sustainable future – organizations of all kinds must continue to prioritize innovative solutions to strengthen sustainability, from proper waste management to creative new forms of recycling. The road ahead may not always be an easy one to navigate, but to prepare for future, we must work together to create a path forward that is circular.


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