The industrial equation of the last century was to turn raw materials into products and dispose of the rest as "waste." That math appears increasingly untenable. As prices soar for some crucial commodities (the hockey stick of the last decade is visible in this UN report), and the impact of global consumption becomes ever more visible, a new equation is emerging for business as usual: Waste can be considered a raw material.
One company that thinks it can get ahead of (and profit from) this trend is the carpet company Interface. Long known for its carpet recycling efforts, the company is now expanding its supply chain to include a community-based cleanup effort of marine trash. NetWorks, a joint-initiative between Interface and the Zoological Society of London, is collecting abandoned nylon fishing gear, a major killer of sealife, and turning it into new carpets by reprocessing the nylon.
So far, a pilot project in the Philippines’ Danajon Bank, a threatened coral reef, has collected one ton of disposed nets and involved more than a thousand people in 15 local villages. By the end of April, the goal is to collect 20 tons of nets (still a fraction of the 1.4 billion pounds of fishing gear discarded in the oceans each year) and create a self-financing model to pay villages for net collection. Ultimately, the goal is to hit Interface’s Mission Zero goal of manufacturing all of its products from recycled or bio-based content (less than half of its materials meet that standard today).
And it is not doing it out of pure altruism. "The concept of using 'waste’ in our supply over time has proven to have a commercial benefit by somewhat insulating our raw material prices from the price of oil as it fluctuates and increases," said Nigel Stansfield, the vice president and chief innovations officer at Interface. "We only see this continuing. Over time the price of waste streams becomes decoupled from the price of virgin streams derived from crude oil. We have set up the economics [in NetWorks] so that eventual costs to Interface are comparable to our current raw material purchase price."
That’s admirable, says Paul Anastas, director of a green chemistry research initiative at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, but it’s really the first step on a larger journey. Ultimately, we need to replace the recycling of harmful materials with designing beneficial ones from the start. At Yale University, he is pushing initiatives to design new biorefineries, slash resource use through better chemistry, and design new materials at the molecular level that not only perform their intended function, but do no harm to human health or the environment.
"The whole point of green chemistry is that we know we can do a lot better in terms of the chemical basis of our society and our economy," says Anastas, who also served as the White House’s assistant director for the environment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The whole idea of recycling is fine if you want to get things out of landfill as your end goal. I’m more than happy to applaud steps in the right direction and Interface usually does this. But we need to know…how do we get to those leapfrog advances?"