Living in a material world

From PVC to precious metals, sustainable materials use is about transition to a cyclic, resource recovery economy. And the sooner this is adopted by industry, the better, writes director of science at The Natural Step, Dr Mark Everard.

Materials have often characterised step-changes in cultural development. Stone, iron and bronze lend their names to ages of human history. Carbon, sulphur and phosphorus were no less significant stimulants of the Industrial Revolution. For many, recent advances form part of a ‘Silicon Age’. Each defines significant advancement of our capacity to manipulate the material world for our own benefit.

Cyclic processes

Sorry Liza Minnelli, but it ain’t money that makes the world go around! It is in fact the perpetual solar-fuelled cyclic processes of nature which, evolved over nearly four billion years, are what makes this planet a sustainable unit. ‘Waste’ is an invention of developed society since, in nature, spent resources from one process feed further processes within complex food webs and never-ending cycles. Cycles that make human life and endeavour possible, profitable and enjoyable.

Today, money threatens to stop our world going around. Our economic system is founded upon a set of Industrial Revolution patterns of resource use that are entirely alien to nature. Developed-world culture was founded upon a linear resource use ethos: mine/extract, use once then throw away. This pattern inevitably pollutes, depletes and denies an equal share for all. Linearity just can not be sustainable on this Earth. However, it is part of our industrialised legacy that still underpins the bulk of our ‘growth through consumption’ economic system and resource use habits today.

Volatile market prices, dependence on behavioural factors beyond the current reach of command-and-control regulation, and artificially cheap virgin resource prices are just three of the factors confounding recycling in today’s market. Yet, despite this, markets for recycling are thriving.

Paper, steel, glass and aluminium we all know about from office recycling stations as well as our own trips to municipal recycling centres. However, they’re not the best examples. High resource prices make copper a better one. Gold is better still, with almost complete ‘closure of the loop’ for used gold ‘products’. (Amazingly, despite gold appearing in every home as jewellery, plating, contacts on mobile phones and audio equipment, etc, it is estimated that all of the gold that humanity has ever extracted from the Earth’s crust would fit into a cube with sides of 18 metres.)

The PVC industry, at least in Europe, is beginning to address the necessity of ‘closing the loop’. Work by international sustainable development charity The Natural Step identified a ‘closed-loop system of PVC waste management’ as one of five key sustainability challenges for the substance (see Box 1 for the five key sustainability challenges). Substantial efforts are being undertaken by the PVC industry at European level under the Vinyl 2010 voluntary commitments to address aspects of these challenges. The two UK PVC manufacturers – Hydro Polymers and European Vinyls Corporation (EVC) – are also undertaking significant additional initiatives to make further progress towards the sustainability challenges.

Sustainability challenges

Hydro Polymers is the PVC business unit of Norsk Hydro, a large Norwegian-based company with other businesses in hydro-electric generation, aluminium and fertilisers. Hydro Polymers has embraced the five key sustainability challenges for PVC in its business plans, and has recently published a brochure documenting how they are being enacted. This is driving considerable innovation and investment within the company, including commitments to the use of renewable energy, leadership within the closed loop aspects of the Vinyl 2010 work programme, further work to eliminate persistent pollutants from manufacturing, liaison with additive manufacturers, and education of the whole industry.

EVC is now a part of the Ineos chemicals group and, like Hydro Polymers, continues to work closely with the UK team of The Natural Step with whom it collaborated on the original 2020 Vision study.

Today, EVC is playing a leading role in a pilot project exploring the feasibility of feedstock recycling at the Schkopau plant, near Leipzig in the former East Germany. The feedstock recycling plant is owned and operated by the Dow Chemical Company, and a 1000 tonne trial for PVC waste is expected to be completed this year. This will lead to a feasibility assessment of the process and project. This exploratory project is a collaboration between three companies in a mutually beneficial relationship. Waste company, ASCON will supply the sorted waste PVC, DOW will recycle plastic to VCM (vinyl chloride monomer) feedstock, and EVC will manufacture PVC from this recycled VCM (also at the Schkopau site).

Meanwhile, Anglian Windows is extending its existing practice of recycling PVC off-cuts from its window production plant into recovery of PVC from used windows, recognising the sustainability issues involved.

In accepting the TNS sustainability challenges, the UK PVC industry has made a public declaration of intent, against which it should remain open to judgement. Is it sustainable today? No, far from it, in common with all other materials in current use. Is it making progress in the right direction? Absolutely, and involving real commitment, big bucks and long time scales. No room for complacency then, but accolades where they are due. And, given the generic nature of the sustainability challenges, this tangible progress is creating the infrastructure that will benefit manufacturers of other materials in the longer-term.

Today, manufacturers and producers of many types of material sleep easier in their beds than their counterparts who are subject to the searchlight of media and pressure group attention. However, they would be foolhardy to be entirely complacent.

Every day, it seems, companies make decisions to phase out ‘bad’ materials, purportedly on sustainability grounds, replacing them with materials they have not scrutinised to anything close to the same degree. Increasing sustainability is an unlikely outcome in this ‘pinball game’ of evading adverse public opinion, as today’s ‘darling’ material can soon subsequently be rebranded as tomorrow’s pariah. There can be no substitute for a well-founded understanding of what sustainability actually means, and how to make pragmatic yet strategic steps towards it.

Green materials

And this means getting out of the ‘green materials’ trap. For example, despite the huge leap forward in ethical and environmentally-sound sourcing provided by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme, even an FSC accredited piece of timber in a mixed waste stream will only contribute to overall pollution loads and represent a wasted resource. For all materials – absolutely all of them in the long term – the next sustainability revolution will lie in the pattern of use, not automatically in the choice of material that may then be used in unsustainable ways.

This, of course, makes decision-making a lot more complex. It means that we have to wake up to the unsustainable practice that permeates our world today, and recognise that simple material choice decisions cannot deliver sustainability so long as they are used in wasteful linear ways. We have instead to understand what sustainability means as a longer-term goal, and then to ensure that our short-term decisions make incremental progress towards it. And this means working in partnership with the many other players entailed in use of that material throughout its life cycle across society. The achievement of true sustainability is a long and committed road.

If sustainability lies as much, or even more so, in the pattern of use of materials than in simplistic choices between material types, it then follows that aspects of the big sustainability challenges will be common for many of the materials used by society. Stepping back to the five key sustainability challenges for PVC in Box 1, this is evidently the case. (Just cross out the word ‘PVC’ and see which materials comply with the challenges today!)

This means that real progress with sustainable use of paper, PVC, aluminium, polyethylene, or whatever depends upon similar processes such as take-back, sorting and cleaning, with material-specific technologies providing relatively minor differentiation at the ‘downstream’ end and in product design. Furthermore, if the lion’s share of the sustainability impacts lie in profligate linear patterns of use, there is necessarily less differentiation between the perceived ‘green’ and the ‘non-green’ materials than many believe today, a point endorsed by a range of comparative life cycle assessment studies.

Operating system

You know the joke about how many Microsoft executives it takes to change a light bulb? (None: they redefine darkness as the industry standard.) The lesson to be learnt here from the Bill Gates experience is identification of the ‘operating system’ of sustainable resource use. Crack that for any one material, and invest in the right way in technological innovation and infrastructure, then you have a major toehold in future markets into which others will be forced to buy sooner or later as sustainability pressures bite them.

Continued investment by material producers and users can either continue to plough money into bespoke schemes with limited benefits, or else can develop and deliver infrastructure and technologies for take-back and recovery with wider generic benefits into which other players involved with other materials will want and/or need to buy.

We live in interesting times, when the sustainability imperative for society to converge the concepts of ‘wastes’ and ‘resources’ is leading material and product manufacturers to think more like waste companies, and waste companies to think more like resource providers. And these same ‘cyclic technologies’ will not only provide those businesses with continuing ‘license to operate’ and competitive advantage in a society increasingly confronted by sustainability pressures, but will also represent infrastructure and processes into which others will need to buy as sustainability pressures impinge upon their sector.

We live in revolutionary times. Not defined this time around by what we use, but by how we use it, be that PVC, other plastics, metals, or – in time – all materials. It is not opinion that tells us this but the laws of nature, which define the ‘carrying capacity’ of our world.

The evidence is all around us of those sustainability pressures bearing upon the transition from linear to cyclic patterns. Just look at the UK’s Landfill and Aggregates Taxes, public objections to and spiralling costs of waste disposal facilities, and new EU Directives with ‘take-back’ provisions (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment, End-of-life Vehicles, etc). Now is the time to decide whether we want to invest in that necessary ‘operating system’ of sustainable material use, or to pay for it later.

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