Getting Our Hands Dirty

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Leading companies, state environmental agencies, and nonprofits mix sweat equity, technology, creativity and innovation to create lasting impact on the Ohio River

CINCINNATI - Materials lacking end-of-life solutions don’t just end up in the landfill - some find their way into rivers and waterways, too. In September, a dedicated group of company leaders, representatives from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and materials technology innovators from the US Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Materials Marketplace, gathered on the Living Lands & Waters (LL&W) barge to help solve the problem.

This mix of people from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin and Tennessee climbed into aluminum long boats and motored to collection zones along the Ohio River. Throughout the day, they loaded everything from ubiquitous plastic containers to dilapidated refrigerators, bringing more than 2,500 pounds of mixed materials back to the barge for separation. The team then entered those materials into the Ohio Materials Marketplace, an online software platform facilitating company-to-company materials reuse, enabling one another to purchase scrap versus buying new. In addition to diverting waste from landfills and rivers, the Materials Marketplace helps save money and energy while creating jobs and business opportunities.

Any organization operating in Ohio can upload details about their various excess materials into the Materials Marketplace free of charge. The Marketplace team then analyzes those entries for reuse by others in the program. The Ohio EPA and US BCSD launched the program in April, and by October, more than 370 companies have used it. As awareness spreads, so too do transactions.

Repurposing materials, even the kind found in the muddy banks of the Ohio River, is doable, according to the US BCSD. 

“We found some challenging materials during the two days on the barge,” said Daniel Kietzer, US BCSD. “Very dirty and deteriorated non-PET plastics currently have limited reuse or remanufacturing end uses; but we found non-landfill outlets for all the material, validating that all businesses and communities can do the same.”

The river cleanup also offers a collaborative model for post-disaster cleanup efforts, like those underway from Texas to Florida following the sweeping hurricanes that hit in the last six weeks. Companies, governments and community organizations can work together to turn perceived waste into valuable products, aligning with a more circular economy that creates economic opportunities along the way. 

General Motors and Johnson Controls led the Ohio River cleanup activity, with participants from organizations including Veolia, Pathway21, Covanta, Phoenix Technologies International, Waste Management, ERM, US Ecology, The Ohio EPA, the Tennessee Department for Environment and Conservation, and the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment. LL&W provided the ability to gather on the river, collect and separate materials; and the Ohio Materials Marketplace brought the data together in one place to be organized, analyzed, repurposed and reported, all in a landfill-free way.

Living Lands & Waters

Headquartered in East Moline, Illinois, Living Lands & Waters is a 501(c)3 environmental organization established by Chad Pregracke in 1998. LL&W has grown to be the only “industrial strength” river cleanup organization like it in the world.

Spending up to 9 months a year living and traveling on the barge, the LL&W crew hosts river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives, workshops, tree plantings and other conservation efforts.

The nonprofit has worked with over 100,000 volunteers from companies, schools, universities and community organizations in more than 1,000 river cleanups. As a result, they have removed 9 million tons of material from 23 rivers. 

Materials Reuse, Circular Economy and Business Supply Chains

In a circular economy, all materials recirculate back productively into the economy. Leading US companies like General Motors and Johnson Controls are challenging traditional take-make-dispose practices and moving to circular models, spurring new levels of innovation, collaboration and connectivity up and down the supply chain.

For example, GM makes car parts from plastic water bottles and Johnson Controls seeks ways to increase the recycled content of lead-acid vehicle batteries - already the most recycled consumer product in the world. Solution and service providers play a major role, from processing and transporting materials, to providing environmentally positive end-of-life disposal when no higher and better solutions are applicable. The Materials Marketplace accelerates such efforts. 

The Ohio EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are spearheading statewide Materials Marketplace programs, opening the doors for hundreds of companies in their states to get involved. This has created a tool for their agencies to engage with business in collaborative dialogue outside of the typical regulator role.

Results from Ohio River Cleanup

The US BCSD team led discussions on reuse opportunities for the materials collected from the river, such as bottles, tires, barge line, metal, rigid plastic, glass, polystyrene and films. Together the group identified viable business opportunities and created action plans to use the materials in new or existing supply chains. Finally, they created Materials Marketplace listings for each material type. 

Looking Ahead

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. In many ways, this event served as a demonstration model for companies, organizations and government agencies to: 

  1. Collaborate in new ways that merge business objectives with environmental initiatives
  2. Look creatively for new sources of materials, and use technologies and programs like the Materials Marketplace to their fullest extent
  3. Embrace the role of hands-on hard work in employee engagement to get teams outside finding and solving tough problems.

“Living Lands & Waters is an incredible organization, and if you’re not working with them already, you should find ways of getting engaged with what they do,” said John Bradburn, General Motors. “But there are also tons of other great organizations out there. We hope people can use our example to explore ways to work together in deeper, more impactful ways, and bring their networks together to support and collaborate.” 

There is space for innovation in this market - especially with foams and films - to expand collection and processing opportunities. These are all materials that should not be in the river to begin with, so expanding education and outreach efforts in communities plays a key role. 

“At the end of the day, we wish organizations like Living Lands and Waters didn’t need to exist,” said John. “But we’re glad they do.” 

Special thanks to Living Lands and Waters, General Motors, Johnson Controls, Covanta, Veolia, Pathway21, Phoenix Technologies International, Waste Management, the US BCSD, ERM, US Ecology, The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Tennessee Department for Environment and Conservation, and the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment.

Daniel Kietzer