Yesterday, November 12, Scott Donachie, CEO, Companies for Zero Waste, hosted a great a great Webinar on the circular economy that included speakers from the investment side as well as those organizations that have started to put the theories into practice within their own business. After welcoming attendees, thanking the sponsors and introducing some of the topics that would be covered during the session, Donachie turned the Webinar over to the first speakers of the day.

Designing Out Excess Waste

Moderating the discussion on modular design, collection, recycling and using recycled materials, Carrie Mae George, VP Head of Sustainability and Impact at Everledger, introduced both Hilde Sijbring Circle Economy and Miquel Ballester from Fairphone . Hilde spoke about linear versus circular economy and designing out waste. In a linear economy, materials are used for a short period of time and thrown into a landfill. She commented that this is not what we want. We currently live in a world where only 10 percent less is circular. Over 90% of commodities is wasted. Ideally product should be designed to be used again. Technology plays a huge role. As a producer, you keep the control over your resources and where they are, what the condition is and you need technology for that to track and trace your products and assets. Hilde stressed that we need to step up the game and make the changes required.

Miquel spoke about Fairphone’s goal of developing phones that are more modern, less plastic. They have worked on a more circular product design and improved their business model to be more self-sufficient while relying on the relationship with the customer, viewing it as an asset. The company has looked at making it economically viable where customers use the device and anything that has to do with repair will fall on company. The batteries are replaceable. In a traditional sales model, customer buys device and that’s it. With this one, it is more involved—does it need a new battery, how are things working, etc. He pointed out that a modular device is more beneficial. Improving design and support keeps products streamlining. They need to know the journey with the customers and condition of the asset. When phones are going to start failing, Fairphone can give a better service to customers and send new battery if needed, keeping ahead of any waste.

Mona E. Dajani, Partner/Global Head of Energy and Infrastructure Finance Group for Pillsbury Law, spoke next about their focus on renewable energy and sustainable finance. The firm works with investors and investments. As they are seeing a lot of circular economy coming to U.S. they advise on sustainability and the circular economy and attracting investments and strategic partners. The firm also educates bankers and structures deals to have these program come to fruition. She discussed with Carrie Mae George, how can OEMs strategically use tech for improving and recycling track rewards and getting it to increase?

Carrie said that across the world, there is only limited actual circular products based on consumer behavior, but you need ease of logistics (how to get there and how to drop it off), and many now go back to stores they bought it from. It is a benefit for retail and product owner. Right now, we need that in every product category and products themselves would have to be redesigned. She also stressed that technology needs to be embedded so there is ownership across various lifecycles and uses. Recycler, refurbisher, and the appropriate data needs to be known throughout its lifecycle.

Supply Chain in the Circular Transition

Deborah Dull, Principal Manufacturing, Product Management, GE Digital was the session’s keynote speaker. Talking about the supply chain as an accelerator for circularity, getting started and measuring success, she covered why the supply chain should be involved in the circular transition:

  1. Inventory—In a well-functioning supply chain, we want to move the inventory as close to the customer as possible. If we can get the balance done well, we need less material in the system. Inventory is often never used and we need to get less material.
  2. Data—This should exist inside a supply chain. We need to know about quantity, quality and timing. We need to see a shift in this.
  3. Circulating—This is an industrial symbiosis but needs to spread regionally. We need to see where raw material will be so we can plan. Allows different factories and value chains to interact with each to find out when things are available.

Deborah also discussed two sides of material flow – Renewable and Technical as well as well as which principles make most sense for the supply chain—design waste out, regenerate natural systems and keeping materials in play. She also covered a seven step process in which we identify the waste (in:out ratio), intensify (using items in economy more often; use of object; tool libraries), Narrow (using less material during manufacturing process; waste elimination), Predict (where the waste will be; keep track of materials; forecast accuracy), Slow (elongating the life of a product; version improvement), Close (closing the loop; take fugitive value and transform it to use in something else; secondary sourced), and Capture (collection; harvesting to capture the value; capacity).

The Economics of a Circular Economy

The panel discussing the economics of a circular economy included speakers, Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director of DOW, Paul Martin, Program Manager for Zeton, and Daniel Robin, Senior Managing Partner at In3Group. Jeff Wooster kicked off the discussion by talking about the need to change the mindset should be thought of as an opportunity for your business. How do we use external pressures/influences and take advantage of that in order to change business strategies. Supply chains are complicated. He pointed out that while we use a simplified idea of circular economy for marketing purposes, it does a great disservice because it’s not just making new products from old ones, it is looking at the whole system and its strategies. We need to think of a circular economy in a much boarder concept while keeping its components in play, creating a system that helps us get to where we want.

Paul Martin agreed by saying there needs to be fewer buzzwords and ideologies and more physics and science. There is a difference between a linear economy, recycling economy and circular economy. In a linear economy, you take, make, use and waste. You can crank up the recycling, but as you do this in order to reduce the amount of waste, you crank up the amount of energy used which will have an environmental impact. He commented that his preferred word to use is optimal recycling—where is energy coming from and what is the impact of waste.

Finally, Daniel Robin spoke about In3Group setting up project finance, joint ventures, direct funding, etc. He said regulations have their place and purpose, but it can only get us so far. What we need is consumer awareness and a shift in behavior. At what point can we get people to change?

Battery Recycling

Understanding the challenges and opportunities with battery recycling, moderated by Richard Fuller, Founder and President of Pure Earth and Founder of Great Forest Inc. introduced first Gavin Harper, Faraday Institution Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, who talked about the study at Faraday University that is looking at the recycling and reuse of lithium ion batteries, electric vehicles and the approach on the project is moving beyond thermal processing and trying to think that much smarter and wiser. How can we recover as much material as possible? At the University of Edinburgh project, they are looking at a wide variety of different processes that are scalable especially with a lot of components involved. There is a need to design for disassemble and end of life processes. The volume of batteries is going to increase massively, and it is a matter of scaling the industry in order to deal with the volume. We need to move towards being able to disable batteries in a smart way.

Ajay Kochhar, President and CEO, Co-Founder of Li-Cycle, a lithium battery recycling company, talked about how recycling with these batteries has been a looming problem. The supply and demand of this critical material has a large growing demand and we will end up having supply demand deficits in the next 5 to 10 years. He pointed out that we need to take a fresh look at how batteries should be recycled. Currently, there is less than 50% recovery rate. Up until now, the recycling chain/process has been disaggregated, inefficient, with low recoveries and waste oriented. Hybrid lithium packs coming out of the economy are constructed of modules that contain many cells. There is a lot of manual intervention, which can lead to components being lost. Then, they go into shredding or directly into roasting or calcining the batteries (burning off the tougher components), that black mass goes to nickel smelters, used as a secondary additive to mineral alloys, goes through a wet chemistry process. The metal is re-desolved into chemicals that can be used by typical cathode precursor manufacturer. There is so much more recoverable value. On the other hand, the Li-Cycle Spoke and Hub Two Stage process is streamlined, efficient, high recovery rate, about 95%. It deals with the mechanical and hydrometallurgical. There is no dismantling or sorting. The black mass and goes into the hydrometallurgical process, which results in a lower cost.

Extended Producer Responsibility

The discussion then shifted to extended producer responsibility. While it has been has heralded as the critical public policy that would move us to a circular economy, how has it worked so far and what have been the challenges. Nancy Gillis, CEO, Green Electronics Council, spoke about the organization’s goal of changing the lifecycle impact of technologies. They are best known for their ecolabel, E-peat, which applies dominantly to number of office equipment, it is increasingly moving towards covering non-office products. The Green Electronics Council focuses on leveraging purchasing power—institutional purchasers on the public sector side at a national large city with purchasing power as well as increasing the private sector (hospitality transportation, etc.), as well as driving demand for credible sustainable technology. The Council provides free access to tools and service, focusing on positive, environmental and social impact. She explained that they are working on a circular electronics partnership, which is developing a roadmap to some of the challenges raised. The partnership is forged by a number of organizations at the forefront of sustainability bringing procurement expertise. EPR is one way to achieve this, but how about the problem of getting the products back into the stream and the business of economics. There are so many challenges; we need to stop having the conversation and put together a roadmap that says the electronics sector to grow to greater circularity.

Carl Smith, President of Call2Recycle, talked about the non-profit company being devoted to collecting and recycling consumer batteries, and will collect 15 million pounds of batteries this year at various sites. They operate in voluntary and in mandatory jurisdictions that have EPR laws (mostly in Canada). EPR has been touted as the policy change to increase recycling rates, and several states have adopted it for e-waste, carpets, paints, etc. However, it is not typically efficient to increase rates, but it is a good way to find financing for some of the efforts to obtain a circular economy and puts responsibility on producers. He pointed out that just because there is money available, it does not change consumer behavior. Any comprehensive set of policies does needs to include EPR. While we put too much faith in the fact that EPR will solve the problems, the key is finding a better way to message or provide sanctions or benefits and not just shift responsibility to producers.

Finally, Stan Chen, CEO of RecycleGo led the discussion on building a blockchain for recycling, how materials are being handled during the recycling process and EPR. He said it is not just a matter of how much capacity, but how we look at production and consumer aspects into end of life components, linking generation and data about the supply chain and bringing it back into the process. We need to understand that even though we are not part of the European BASIL convention, we still need to accept that it will still affect us and we need to get a handle on what we are producing. EPR is great with regards to financing but where are the resources going. He explained that blockchains can enhance EPR programs. It finds the digital twins of materials that are going to be recycled and tracks the material as it goes down the supply chain. You know where recycling is happening and where the resources are needed. We need to redistribute and allocate resources collected by EPR programs. There are gaps in chain of custody; we need to track materials and see where responsible handling is.

Mining and Agriculture

The last session of the day focused on how mining and agriculture ties into the circular economy. Sandia Martin, CEO at Amata Green spoke first on afocus on agriculture and helping farming to become more sustainable, especially with regards to biochar. Recycling farm waste not only sequesters carbon, but it also helps to reduce water usage on the farms and helps to create healthy soil. Amata Green is building a biochar-making facility in Spain. She said they are in the beginning of reaching out to investors and getting funding. 1.3 tons of agricultural waste in Spain every year and a lot of it goes to landfills. They plan on taking the waste and turning it into biochar in order to put it back into the soil.

Margaret Durenberger, Vice Chair of the SME (Society of Mining and Exploration) Board, Twin Cities Subsection, stressed the importance of mining minerals in the United States. She said we do not have enough minerals to recycle what we have, and other material is coming in from third world countries. It takes a lot of resources and people. We need to get better at recycling and get at those minerals. There are up to 125 minerals in phones. We need to mine in developed countries where you can manage the environment and social aspects. With regards to the circular economy, she expressed that what it comes down to is that they are trying to improve their image; the mining industry leaders upon whom the world depends for the essential minerals will fail if they do not win the support of investors. There are people that want to invest in something but if they don’t see it as environmentally or socially responsible, then they will not support them. You must make recycled products economically viable against raw materials. Things have to start from manufacturing to bring it to where we know it will be recycled back into where it started. It has been a transition to Refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. The concept of a circular economy is a great theory, but we are only extending a product’s life by 20 to 30 years. We need to consider slowing down consumption right at the beginning.

Framed as conversation-style event, the Webinar was a great way for those involved to have in-depth discussion on the topics and bounce ideas and concepts off of each other. The lively conversations concluded with a Q&A from the audience and the presenters were happy to provide answers to anyone who wanted to know more about a particular aspect discussed. It was a great session and we look forward to the next one on December 17!

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