Author: Stowe Beam, Senior Director, Corporate Development.
Back in the 80’s, when SCS Global Services was a start-up and everyone wanted to time travel in Doc’s DeLorean, recycled content was the cutting edge environmental technology claim pursued by innovative product and packaging manufacturers. Today’s start-ups bring us self-driving vehicles and face an increasingly complex landscape of sustainability requirements demanded by customers.
For technology start-ups, the issues range from data center energy use to carbon footprint reporting through a framework such as the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). Technology hardware—all those phones, tablets, and laptops—requires conflict minerals reporting to meet the due diligence requirements of Dodd-Frank Section 1502 and the public reporting mandates from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
For product start-ups, demonstrating environmental performance can seem just as daunting. Companies that achieved recycled content certification thirty years ago are now generating Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), disclosing chemicals of concern in their products, pursuing sustainable sourcing and supply chain management, and setting carbon neutral goals.
So, where should a start-up start? The answer might just be to go back to the future with recycled content.
Recycled content and recycling program certification remains one of the first steps a company can take to provide independent verification of its nascent sustainability story. In October, I had the privilege to speak with a few start-ups with business models centered on innovations in waste and recycling. I was in Boston participating on a panel at Sustainatopia, a major event focused on social, financial and environmental sustainability and impact. Two of the other panelists represented new companies working to divert niche wastes and create recycled or reused value out of those materials. This is recycling beyond the familiar cans and bottles in your curbside bin.
Gavin Bodkin, co-founder at Circular Blu, shared the challenges and early successes in diverting a new waste stream from healthcare institutions. His company establishes collection points for blue sterilization wrap at healthcare institutions and then makes tote and patient bags that are sold back to hospitals to create a closed loop system. Circular Blu is just starting to look into certification for its recycling program.
Bertha Jimenez, the Executive Director at Rise, described her team’s work to commercialize a winning academic hackathon idea. Rise is a New York-based marketplace connecting industrial waste—primarily spent grain from craft breweries—to companies that can turn that waste into food and other products.
These two examples offer a glimpse into the diversity of processes and types of materials that can be recycled. SCS Global Services has examined and certified hundreds of products, including: aluminum in beverage cans; food-grade and consumer packaging from paper and plastic; pulp in a variety of paper products; apparel items made from recycled soda bottles, denim, down feathers, and other fiber sources; carpet fiber; glass in fiberglass insulation; and recycled gems and precious metals in jewelry. This variety requires standards –that is, definitions –to ensure consistency amongst companies that make a claim about a product’s recycled content.
SCS Global Services relies on two primary standards. The first comes from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The standard, ISO 14021:2016, specifies requirements and describes terms commonly used in environmental claims, including recycled content. Per ISO, recycled content is the proportion, by mass, of recycled material in a product or its packaging. Both pre-consumer and post-consumer materials are considered recycled content.
Pre-consumer refers to material that is diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process. Post-consumer material is generated by households or by commercial, industrial and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product, which can no longer be used for its intended purpose. This includes returns of material from the distribution chain.
SCS also relies upon the US Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides. The Green Guides aim to help marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful. For recycled content, a claim may be made only for materials that have been recovered or otherwise diverted from the solid waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer), or after consumer use (post-consumer).
One of the other panelists at Sustainatopia, Jim Cabot, was formerly a Director of Strategic Planning at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While there, he started the first cleantech development center. Now, as the founder of Cabot Strategies, he helps companies of all sizes navigate heavily regulated industries. Meanwhile, the EPA is working to issue new guidance for federal procurement by evaluating the diverse landscape of ecolabels.
The EPA is just wrapping up pilot testing for new guidelines for environmental performance standards and ecolabels. The pilot established criteria for ecolabels in three product categories: furniture, flooring, and paints and coatings. SCS actively participated in this pilot, both through serving on panels that helped draft the criteria and through the submission of our certification programs for evaluation to the draft criteria. In my role on the paints and coatings panel, I helped refine the progression of ecolabel performance expectations from single-attribute claims –like recycled content –to the holistic verification of environmental impacts through life cycle assessment.
Recycled content may not seem cutting edge in today’s sophisticated marketplace of environmental claims. But every sustainability journey should start simply. The product start-up has to focus on the basic business priorities of a new venture; an established company has to identify its first steps toward a more responsible future. Both face the sustainability demands of customers and the pending pressures of regulation. Recycled content may still be that best first step, just like it was thirty years ago. Let us know if you are ready to get started.
Let’s hop in that DeLorean to wrap this up and see where recycled content certification might lead. One company with which SCS has worked extensively, New Leaf Paper, demonstrates a journey that started with recycled content. New Leaf is the largest paper company in the United States focused exclusively on sustainable paper. Since 1998, it has offered 100% post-consumer recycled content and Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. Last year, SCS worked with New Leaf to evaluate the comprehensive environmental performance of its Reincarnation product line compared to conventional paper manufacturing. Let’s just say that the results speak for themselves. The full life cycle assessment report is freely available for those who want to know how to get back to the future with recycled content certification.
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