Since its launch in June, the Cascading Materials Vision (CMV) from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has partnered with a variety of stakeholders — including The Recycling Partnership, the Ocean Conservancy, the American Chemistry Council, Target and McDonald's — to find opportunity and economic value in expanding the availability and use of secondary material.
World Wildlife Fund leveraged the 2017 Verge Conference to share its vision of using fewer raw materials — and getting value out of what has already been produced and slated to be thrown away. In two sessions, one open and one closed, the WWF and other partners will introduce attendees to the idea of "cascading value" and talk about the "need to think differently," according to Erin Simon, director of Sustainability R&D at WWF. In an invite-only session, WWF will speak with stakeholders who are already involved in waste reduction and material reuse to develop ideas and share strategies.
In a conversation with Waste Dive, Simon and Jason Hale, vice president of communications at The Recycling Partnership, covered everything from the origins of the CMV to how China’s ban on imported scrap material could affect the U.S. recycling industry.
What the Cascading Materials Vision is doing
Simon said the WWF had been looking for a way to get involved with the dialogue surrounding waste, recycling and material reuse, however the WWF staff didn't necessarily have subject-matter expertise to tackle the problems and come up with solutions on their own.
"The sweet spot for the way we engage is to help companies tackle really complicated problems and bring a number of stakeholders to the table," Simon said. WWF and the CMV can act as a network for industry players to collaborate on material reuse.
One of the biggest reasons that the CMV is coming together now, Simon said, was a change in scientific understanding and consensus on waste management policies. Insufficient landfill and waste management inland can create marine pollution — it's not all plastic bottles from beach towns.
Hale added that, for himself and The Recycling Partnership, partnering with WWF and other groups would allow the group to create a "greater impact, faster," because it would reach a broad range of big stakeholders.
Beyond the project planning importance of the CMV, Simon and Hale both saw economic and environmental opportunities. Sending less material to landfills would allow companies to spend less money on mass production, and it would allow recyclers to draw more value from material before it's disposed. Using fewer materials and extracting fewer resources from the planet also means lowered greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling material, Simon said, can go hand in hand with creating economic value.
"If we could carefully manage those resources that today we’re so carelessly throwing away, and recoup some of that value, we would also have some benefit to our planet," Simon said.
Signatories to the vision agree to 10 guiding principles, including maximizing benefit, sharing value and making decisions that are informed by science.
While the CMV has some clear goals — seeing greenhouse gas emissions decrease, reducing the amount of waste reaching the ocean and recouping value from secondary materials, to name a few — Simon said the ways to measure success haven’t been totally cemented yet.
"I think we're kind of early on to say exactly what we are going to use as our metrics," Simon said. "This isn't a standard, or a certification, so we haven't really drawn a line in the sand." Instead, she added, they’d be looking for a "diverse" set of solutions.
"While it will have an impact, recycling is an international industry, it's not just a U.S. and China industry. It is an opportunity, domestically, to shore up the domestic markets."
Vice President of Communications, The Recycling Partnership
Hale said that his "top solution" would be to stop waste from happening in the first place. One way that the CMV is doing that, he said, is giving mayors and other local government leaders "something to latch on to."
"A lot of mayors feel like, 'Oh, recycling is done,'" and they can focus on other projects, Hale said. "Point of fact is that it's not." He added that cities can still extract a lot of opportunity from investing in recycling, and that the CMV, which is encouraging materials reuse and waste reduction, could bring big players together and bring recycling back to the front of public dialogue.
"But people want it," Hale said. "People need hope, people need and outlet, people want to recycle."
What cascading materials could mean in the face of China's import ban
Simon and Hale both described themselves as the "glass half full" type of people, and applied that optimism to China's looming ban on importing some scrap material. While The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) said in a letter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that a Chinese import ban could "greatly diminish public confidence, participation and support of local recycling programs," the CMV espouses an alternative view.
Simon said that the ban will be "very challenging in the near term," especially because of the large volume of scrap material that the U.S. sells to China. But, she added, having access to recyclable or recycled materials in the U.S. can be an opportunity for companies here. Hale agreed.
"While it will have an impact, recycling is an international industry, it's not just a U.S. and China industry," Hale said. "It is an opportunity, domestically, to shore up the domestic markets."
He added that the CMV partnership itself could do a lot to shore up against the disruption of a Chinese import ban. He said that the companies — which include McDonald's, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Keurig Green Mountain, Nestle and McCormick — have a lot of "market pull" and can lead the way in terms of problem solving.
With more than a dozen big organizations joining together to commit to using fewer virgin material and working to enhance access to recycled or secondary material, there is, as Hale said, a mountain of opportunity. According to Hale, there are 22 million metric tons of recyclable material in the U.S. that aren't diverted because of a lack of access to recycling programs.
There is no shortage of opportunity, then, for recycling haulers to find new markets — or for recyclers to construct or expand MRFs in areas that don't currently have a full recycling service. While China is by far the world's largest purchaser of imported recycled scrap, there are other markets — Hong Kong, for example, imported nearly 3 million metric tons of plastic in 2015.
In addition to being a boon for recyclers and recycling haulers, encouraging material reuse would divert material from landfills, saving valuable airspace. Value can be extracted from material as it is used, and reused, instead of tossed aside in a scrap heap or incinerated.
While the goal is certainly noble, it is too early to see if the CMV's vision is feasible, especially since specific metrics haven’t been determined — and because nobody is quite sure about what the Chinese import ban will do to the global recycling trade. While the conversations around and the ideas drawn from the partnerships that make up the CMV will be important, they won't amount to anything at all if there aren't measurable impacts on diversion and recycling rates, which will require work with producers, policymakers and consumers.