Circular Economy? Design for Recycling, establish end markets

Key to success in circular economy initiatives is to promote the use of recycled and recyclable materials in the manufacturing stream and foster recognition that a product’s end-of-life value is inextricably linked to how it is made

Circular economy models strive to reduce CO2 emissions, decrease waste sent to landfills and preserve finite virgin materials. They are meant to establish full-producer responsibility for products, creating a cycle where materials are introduced back into the production stream at the end of their useful lives, rather than being disposed of. Whether for political, financial, or environmental motives, governments across the globe, corporations, and activists alike are promoting this model as a means to combat climate change. 

Two Canadian provincial governments have embraced the model so far. British Columbia is well established, and the Waste-free Ontario Act, passed last June, provides a "road map" for the province's transition to a circular economy. The sizable piece of environmental legislation from Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC), and its two enabling regulations, promote improved product stewardship as a key strategy in reaching the "zero-waste" goal. 

The MOECC has been working quickly to advance this new sustainability model, and have recently begun the process of winding-up one of four existing stewardship programs. As policymakers dissolve and eventually re-establish these programs, perhaps it is necessary to ask whether product stewardship does anything to boost demand for secondary materials at all.

The recycling industry holds a critical position in the value stream - between the producers of goods, and the consumers of end-of-life products. As such, recyclers have a unique understanding of how existing markets dictate the demand for secondary materials, and should be considered a valuable resource for developing circular economy legislation. We believe merely replacing one stewardship program with the next does not address the driving force in economic models: there must be market demand for material in order for that material to hold value. 

Consumer products present a vast array of end-of-life scenarios depending on how they are produced and what they are made of. If there is a robust, well-established market for the material present at a product's end-of-life, implementing legislation that requires stewardship of that particular product is redundant - the demand in the market will make the material valuable enough for producers, recyclers and consumers to continuously cycle the material through the stream rather than landfilling it. For those products that do not hold value at the end of their useful lives, perhaps it is best to evaluate why the product was not made from recyclable materials to begin with. 

Some governments in other parts of the world are now emphasizing that a product's end-of-life value is inextricably linked to how it is made. A recent report from the European Commission to European Parliament, on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan, focuses on how crucial it is for the full product lifecycle to be considered when creating the most efficient and low-waste stream for secondary raw materials. The same report outlines an eco design initiative that aims to establish "product requirements... such as durability, reparability, upgradeability, design for disassembly, information, and ease of reuse and recycling."

Circular economy models must promote the use of recycled and recyclable materials in the manufacturing stream. For a circular economy to truly flourish, governments should first and foremost be inducing producers to design for recycling. Designing for recycling is a practical and economical approach to sustainability. Discouraging manufacturers' use of hazardous and difficult-to-recycle materials would allow recyclers to increase material recovery using existing technology and processes. 

Part of Ontario's strategy includes encouraging markets through procurement policies, and this is a promising development. Previous legislation has focused only on diverting material from landfill, but a functioning circular economy requires a market for the recovered material. Combining procurement policies with design for recycling would create ideal conditions for sustainable end-markets. Where competitive markets exist, material will always be well recovered. 

This article was originally published in Recycling Product News, Volume 25, Number 4, May/June, 2017.

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