Last Tuesday, GreenBiz hosted the first in a two part webinar series on the emissions impact of recycling and Sustainable Materials Management (SMM).
SMM can be generally described as active management of a product’s life cycle to reach sustainability aims.
The webinar began with an overview of the EPA’s work on SMM/LCA advocacy. Essentially, the EPA sees its role as advancing LCA and SMM as integral business practices. Because LCA and supply-chain work is so crucial to truly moving the bar on reducing emissions, it’s heartening to know that the EPA has made this a priority in their policy, oversight, and research work.
From lifecycle to the trash
After the EPA presentation, the talk shifted from life-cycle studies directly to the end of the life cycle and the work of Waste Management, the American comprehensive waste and environmental services company. Waste Management has undertaken a massive effort calculate the actual dollar cost of reducing emissions waste by method of disposal.
As a side note, the presenters did not do a great job of clearly making this transition from LCA work to emissions reduction cost calculating. But, it seems that the overall point was two-fold:
1. Most organizations look at their carbon footprint – which is business operations – and what comes up most commonly is that the largest emissions source for most businesses is energy use. So, companies focus on energy reductions initiatives, essentially passing their product emissions - natural resources, product use, and product disposal – onto suppliers and consumers. This needs to stop. More organization need to look up and down a product’s life cycle to really engineer, source and plan in ways that reduce the overall impact of the entire product to move the bar on sustainability.
2. As organizations begin to engineer products with a focus on SMM, it would be helpful to know the GHG emissions resulting in end of life (i.e. GHG emissions of landfilling versus single-stream recycling) and the cost in real dollars of each of the processing methods. That’s where Waste Management stepped in.
Waste Management’s work calculating the price of reducing GHGs in the waste management industry delivers a cost per ton of GHG emissions through various waste processing techniques. (The most reduction for the lowest cost goes to – residential and commercial single-stream recycling!)
The Waste Management process, prioritization, and graphical representation on how they calculated cost/benefit is pretty fantastic. Definitely consider downloading the slides.
But questions remain.
How can organizations and policymakers work to reduce the cost of the other types of GHG emissions reduction technologies (e.g. anaerobic digesters)? Is there talk about subsidizing them? How can businesses be incentivized to use materials that can be sent into the low-emissions/low-cost single-stream recycling category and/or eliminate materials that can’t? Is there talk about banning certain materials? Are there waste processing technologies that need research funding that provide low-cost emissions reduction?
Calculating cost and cost benefit is important from an engineering standpoint, but only if your organization is somehow incentivized or driven to engineer with the life cycle in mind. Without pressure – regulatory or otherwise- companies are still largely driven by the biggest incentive of all: producing products for the lowest actual cost and passing any environmental costs onto the planet, via the consumer.
Listen to the recap here, and log in today at 1pm Eastern for the second webcast, Setting Goals: Have We Reached the Limits of Recycling?, where presenters look at SMM through waste reduction efforts and give guidance on how to set effective waste reduction and recycling goals.
Are you ready to take a more advanced approach to understanding and reducing impact through a product life-cycle assessment? Check out our LCA overview information and contact us for a brief discussion of the benefits and challenges.