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Making a case for recycled materials

Anne Johnson

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
Making a case for recycled materials


It would be nice if the benefits of environmental strategies were straightforward, but unfortunately, the interaction of our industrial systems with the environment is highly complex—just ask any practitioner of life-cycle analysis. Despite this complexity, it is possible to make generalizations about environmental best practices, and we often do.

There are significant environmental benefits associated with using recycled materials. This is a general best-practice statement that is widely accepted. However, on occasion, this general statement may be challenged by the specific details of a case example, like a product-level life-cycle analysis. As we know, there are often exceptions to the rule, and there are examples where the use of recycled materials may not result in the optimal environmental benefit for that particular product. But that doesn't mean that the general rule doesn't hold.

The environmental, social and economic benefits of using recycled materials include the conservation of virgin resources and energy to the diversion of materials from landfills. Depending on the material, the list of benefits may vary, as well as the point in the life cycle in which the benefit occurs. A commonly cited example is aluminum.

Recycled aluminum requires 95-percent less energy per kilogram to produce than a kilogram of virgin aluminum. Beyond energy, the use of recycled aluminum conserves bauxite extraction, alumina production and aluminum smelting and all the cumulative environmental impacts, not to mention the various transportation miles that might also be involved.

From this perspective, using recycled aluminum helps minimize our current impacts based on the existing system. However, what if the scale of that system is growing like that of an industrializing planet.

Is minimizing enough?

The question brings us to another perspective on recycled materials. Using recycled materials sends a signal that materials are valuable, not just from an economic perspective, but also because of the investment in environmental impact made in their creation and their disposition, and the cumulative nature of those impacts, such as climate change. From this point of view, the use of recycled materials is an investment in a longer-term strategy to drive system and economic change.

There is no doubt that raw materials industries are very environmentally impactful. However, there is also no doubt that they are the backbone of our industrialized society. So, where is the sustainability balance? The balance has to do with a perspective on time and whether we are designing for the system we have today versus creating an impetus for the more sustainable systems of tomorrow.

We have a woefully inadequate infrastructure for recycling today in the U.S. This is one of the greatest barriers to realizing truly sustainable packaging for many materials. We do not even have a nationally recognized vision for what a sustainable-materials economy might look like. The Chinese adopted a framework for a circular economy in 2002. They purchase a lot of our post-consumer materials, use them as feedstocks in a new cycle of production and help grow their economy by selling them back to us.

I would contend that using recycled materials isn't only an essential part of a strategy to reduce our current footprint, but it's also a force to drive the change needed to engineer the systems that rationalize the economics of recycling, so that when we refer to sustainable packaging, it means an economic supply chain from cradle-to-cradle and a more sustainable materials future. To learn more about circular economy, go to www.chinacp.com/eng/cppolicystrategy/circular_economy.html.

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue (www.greenblue.org). For additional information, email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Anne Johnson

Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue (www.greenblue.org). For additional information, email [email protected].

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