Materials Management as Carbon Reduction Strategy

Let’s make materials management a recognized and rewarded carbon reduction strategy of the proposed UN Climate Change Agreement

By Andrew Mangan, US BCSD and Marian Chertow, Yale University

Modern society has an intense thirst for physical resources to meet daily human needs, wants, and desires, which, in turn, is supported by the businesses and industries that collectively service these requests. The processes that provide physical resources generate significant quantities of waste at every step of the way, exposing us all to vast environmental, energy, and resource availability challenges. Once again much of the world is focusing on global climate with the upcoming meetings in 2015 in Paris following another year of bewildering weather and readily apparent land change. Years of research have shown that waste reduction is repeatedly associated with lowering greenhouse gases (GHGs) that exacerbate climate change. It is time we recognize the good actors and reward them by making waste reduction a recognized carbon reduction strategy in the upcoming UN climate negotiations.

While waste and materials management have not been on the front line of climate solutions, current emphasis on lifecycle approaches reveals that it is time to reconsider their role. If we break the climate problem down into different economic sectors, we see that energy and transport are nearly 2/3 of where GHG emissions originate – based primarily on fossil fuels burned to generate electricity and also to power vehicles (Figure 1). Yet, a recent US EPA report suggests that we slice the pie chart a bit differently to increase understanding of what EPA now calls “materials management” described as “serving human needs by using and reusing resources most productively and sustainably throughout their lifecycles.” (source) From a materials management perspective, the second chart below, based on a systems rather than sectoral approach, becomes quite relevant (Figure 2). As seen here, materials management systems for providing food and other goods accounts for 42% of GHG emissions. This figure embraces a lifecycle perspective that considers the extraction of natural resources, production, transport and disposal of food and other goods.

US GHG Emissions

Source: US EPA 2009. Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas. Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices

Great work is going on in industry toward materials management that not only creates new revenues and saves on landfill, but also reduces climate impacts when virgin materials can be avoided and efficiency can be increased. Some interesting ways that industries we work with are having success fall into three categories: internal reuse and recycling within a firm or facility, online material trading with other firms, and trading across unrelated facilities in the same geographical area. These are discussed below:

  1. Trading across unrelated facilities in the same geographical area – While geographic concentrations of industry are often heavy generators of GHGs associated with global climate change, impacts can be modulated through collaborative approaches. Emerging from industrial ecology is the notion of “industrial symbiosis” - where a cluster of geographically proximate firms exchange material by-products, energy, and water in a mutually beneficial manner such that waste from one industrial process becomes the feedstock for another. Through such systems, transportation costs and emissions are minimized and materials and energy already embedded in products is conserved, enabling GHG emissions to be greatly reduced at the industrial scale. For example, in Austin, Texas, the Austin Materials Marketplace is bringing together businesses of all sizes and entrepreneurs in the City of Austin and Travis County to create closed-loop systems in which one company’s waste is another company’s raw material. Other networked clusters have been found across the world from the mineral processing region in Kwinana, Australia to China’s enormous Tianjin Economic –Technological Development Area to Kalundborg Denmark, and the industrial cluster of Ulsan, Korea. And the Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory began in Detroit, Michigan, USA to bring together urban entrepreneurs and community economic development organizations to find ways of reusing materials such as deconstructing old buildings rather than demolishing them to repurpose resources for alley repaving and to construct new sidewalks.
  2. Andrew Mangan presents materials reuse in Lima, Peru on 12/4/14.

    Internal reuse and recycling within a firm or facility – In addition to traditional materials management that has gone on as long as there has been industry, the US Business Council for Sustainable Development is seeing an upsurge in members paying careful attention to by-product reuse. General Motors and Nike, for example, both operate with the mindset that waste is merely a resource out of place, and both have set billion dollar goals based on material reuse. They emphasize improving material yields, reusing remaining scrap in a closed loop back into their own products and maximizing recycling of the rest.

  3. Online materials trading – old fashioned “waste exchanges” once served the purpose of letting one firm know that another had a discarded resource to offer for sale. Today most of this happens on line and systems are getting more sophisticated. An outpouring of interest at the business organization level this year indicates that this collaborative big data approach may be getting ready for primetime. This summer, the US BCSD joined with companies from the Corporate Eco Forum in launching a new online Materials Marketplace aimed at scaling reuse across hundreds or potentially thousands of companies. In November, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development expressed its interest in the marketplace through its newly formed Safe and Sustainable Materials Cluster. The new software takes advantage of user-centric design and standardized and accessible data templates, to make it possible for companies to share information about the materials flowing through their operations in a confidential, safe environment. Having access to this kind of information has led to material reuse opportunities such as reusing fibrous wastes in ceiling tiles, waste heat from cement kilns drying brewery grain for bricking and shipping; and converting ephemeral packaging products into a range of cascading product forms as companies recognize there is value in what they used to think of as waste.

Recognizing and rewarding the climate benefits of material reuse is needed now to provide a positive path for decarbonized economic progress. Characterizing the values, both direct life cycle benefits and broader societal advancements, achievable through this frugal, inclusive approach will be necessary. But related systems exist and can be applied, tailored for materials management. Devising such a system is not a simple matter and would take a ramp up in our understanding of GHG accounting and the most recent climate models. This move would also require taking on the types of issues that have been difficult to resolve with, for example, the Clean Development Mechanism regarding additionality – so that waste managers would not be rewarded for “business as usual” but rather for innovative development. By adopting materials management as a core strategy of the climate agreement, governments will be empowering companies, communities and countries to move toward a more circular economy where wastes become resources that can be used over and over again as they are in the natural world. At the same time, adopting rewards for carbon reductions in materials management would bring a whole new community into the realm of climate solutions.

Andrew Mangan is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the United States Business Council for Sustainable Development and Marian Chertow is Associate Professor of Industrial Environmental Management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Other news: COP20: Gobiernos de Suiza y Perú resaltan la importancia del uso eficiente de recursos para la creación de Eco-parques Industriales