Recycling was a big topic at Sustainable Brands this year. More specifically, how brands are making money out of trash. A perfect storm of forces has coalesced to make recycled plastics more viable than they used to be, and sometimes more viable than virgin plastics. A persistently weak economy, a generation growing up with terror of environmental collapse, and the passion to do their best to prevent that, and “waste” becoming more plentiful than crude oil. William McDonough’s pioneering work in Cradle to Cradle is finally heading into the mainstream.
Coke has created the ekocycle campaign in collaboration with musician will.i.am and brands interested in using RPET (recycled PET) in their products. You can now buy Levi’s, RVCA, Beats by Dre, and others. This campaign has, in my eyes, given Coca-Cola a pass into the New American Dream, where a significant number of today’s youth don’t trust massive brands and care more about saving the planet than owning a car, as we heard from Label Networks’ Kathleen Gasperini. By closing the loop on their products this way, they’re showing the world they really do care. About materials, at least.
When I asked Coke’s VP of Environment and Water Resources about the cost of RPET vs virgin PET, he gave me a very clear answer. In past years, I’ve asked a number of major apparel brands why they’re not using more RPET. Cost is always the issue. Yet what Jeff Seabright was able to tell me is that as the price of oil has climbed enough in recent years so that there are now times when RPET is cheaper than PET. He also likes RPET because the price and the supply are more stable. He considers it a hedge against the volatility of PET, which is why they also use it for their bottles.
Here are some highlights of what other companies represented at Sustainable Brands are doing to clean up the planet’s massive waste dumps:
Terracycle founder Tom Szaky studied Economics at Princeton, so in his presentation he was able to give a plethora of sound economic reasons for why their take-back programs work. They began in 2001 by selling worm poop in old soda bottles. Now they have a full host of recycling programs, from special ashtrays for collecting cigarette butts to be recycled into industrial plastics, to school-based programs for collecting juice packs from children to be recycled into anything, or flip-flops into playgrounds. His presentation made it all seem limitless, the things we can do with used plastics. A company just starting out in the space was THREAD, which buys plastics from collectors in Haiti and hopes to expand their reach to other developing countries.
To me, THREAD was by far the most impactful of the four Sustainable Brands Innovation Open finalists. But then, I’ve been to countries where there is no recycling infrastructure, so I’ve seen firsthand how this can destroy an otherwise lovely view. The other finalists are also doing wonderful work, but I’m interested in what will have the biggest impact. Vertigent is another company making recycling easier. It collects and shares regional data on recycling.
E-waste is indeed a massive problem, with only 10-20% of electronics being recycled in the US. Sprint’s Director of Environmental Initiatives, Darren Beck, sat down with me after his presentation in the “Making Hay from Waste” panel to discuss this. The full story is coming soon.
Interface, competing against other carpet makers for the world supply of Nylon 6, an infinitely recyclable fiber ideal for carpeting, has turned to the fishing industry in developing nations. They buy worn-out fishing nets from fishers and recycle them into carpet.
Johnson & Johnson, wanting to source post-consumer packaging materials in Brazil, realized the cooperatives collecting recyclables from the trash were in desperate need of regulation to bring them up to code with J&J’s Environmental, Health, and Safety standards. So they set about helping Futura, a recycling cooperative, become SA8000 certified, the first of its kind to do so. This was truly moving, as was the Landfillharmonic where trash pickers make musical instruments from trash for their children to play in music class. The sound is amazingly good, as you can see in their video.
Mango Materials was very exciting, because they are solving two problems at once — making plastics that are sustainably sourced, while also keeping methane out of the atmosphere. Mango sets up equipment on your local landfill or cattle farm and takes in all the methane those cows can pump out (a lot, basically). In their tanks, special microbes get fat & happy eating all the methane they can possibly digest, which then turns into PHA, a perfectly useable plastic which is more durable than PLA, yet can biodegrade in a variety of environments. Instead of hoping your city has the right type of composter to be up to the task of decomposing PLA, you can just flush PHA down the toilet, or let it go out to the ocean, or simply bury it in your backyard. PHA requires a significant enzymatic process, like in landfills, or extremely acidic conditions, to break down, and does so fairly quickly. Methane PHA is about 30% cheaper than other types of PHA.
I also spoke with some of the apparel makers present, and while Volcom has found it fairly easy to incorporate RPET into its line, H&M has had a harder time convincing its customers that it’s what they want. The quality of the fiber is no different, really, so it all comes down to price. With companies like THREAD harvesting third-world trash heaps, it’s just a matter of building a demand for closed-loop clothing so that more brands will see their customers want to buy clothes made from waste instead of from virgin oil. The ekocycle campaign may be the most potent tool for this yet.