What goes around

A Downer crew resurfaces Queenstown Airport's apron, using TonerPave made from recycled glass...
A Downer crew resurfaces Queenstown Airport's apron, using TonerPave made from recycled glass bottles and toner ink. Photo: Supplied
Businesses are transitioning to a new model with a lighter tread, writes Sara Walton.

Sara Walton
Sara Walton

How can we change our thinking on consumption, faced with dwindling natural resources and increasing costs to dispose of waste? A couple of weeks ago this question was at the heart of a Sustainable Business Network workshop at the Otago Business School.

Several business representatives came to talk about their activities in this area. It was interesting to hear from a variety of businesses thinking about the full life cycle of their products. Asking questions such as: what are the impacts of all of the parts of the products that I sell? What parts can be used for other purposes?

For example, Fuji Xerox is moving towards a circular economy model with a re-use and recycle rate of 99.5% for returned equipment, which is accredited through the Ministry for the Environment product stewardship scheme. Under the Government's proposed new product stewardship scheme, this kind of thinking and practice is set to expand.

The proposal focuses on six priority products: tyres, electrical and electronics (e-waste), refridgerants, agrichemicals, farm plastics and packaging. It involves moving to a circular way of using resources across the economy.

For example, the waste toner from the Fuji Xerox take-back scheme is used in a low-carbon asphalt road surface called TonerPave, which is purported to reduce the carbon emissions of roads.

While regulation might be an initiator for product stewardship, it also makes sense from an economic point of view.

Owning the materials that can then be re-used in the manufacturing process may make signficiant economic sense - especially in a resource depleted planet (or one where resource extraction becomes more expensive).

It recognises that our world is not resource abundant nor do we have unlimited capacity for dumping our waste materials.

McDonough and Braungart, founders of the cradle-to-cradle approach, say that it is about recognising the limits of the current industrial economy. We must develop a better understanding of how we are increasingly coming up against these limits when operating as business-as-usual (BAU) - which is to say, a linear take-make-waste system. BAU relies on infinite raw resources and unlimited space for disposal. We know that this is not the case and the increasing costs of such thinking are starting to create influence in business decisions.

Designing products to be dis-assembled at the end of their life is part of the cradle-to-cradle or circular economy system. At the end of a product's life the parts either end up going back into new products or are such that they can be returned and broken down in the biological system. This helps reduces waste (and the costs of such) and reduces the need for extraction or production of raw resources.

In the circular economy model the company continues to own the products and leases them to consumers on a pay as you use system. As such, the products can then be returned to the company at the end of life for dis-assembly and the appropriate parts are then re-used.

It sounds deceivingly simple but to move to a system in Aotearoa New Zealand will require significant change across all sectors of the economy.

Practices are changing and research across all disciplines - materials processing, supply-chain, legal aspects - is happening. Through working together it is hoped an understanding will be developed of how circularity can operate in our socio-cultural context.

Like most change for sustainability it will likely involve a series of transitions with all players coming to the table to redesign systems that will operate within our planetary limits - thus a sustainable transition in the making.

 - Sara Walton is associate professor of sustainability and business at the Otago Business School, University of Otago. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.

 

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