[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), the Cradle to Cradle consulting firm, about making products and processes that are safe, healthy and sustainable.]
The FIFA World Cup is a great international celebration and competition that has brought increased attention to the environmental impact and overall sustainability of the event.
This year, Nike manufactured soccer jerseys for its national teams (including the USA and the Netherlands) from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a type of polyester) drink bottles. This is a great story of “closing the loop” on material flows – putting to use a material from a previous application, rather than landfilling or incinerating it.
According to Nike, the production of these recycled polyester jerseys kept enough bottles out of landfills to cover more than 3,000 kilometers, which is more than the entire coastline of South Africa. We applaud everyone involved in bringing the jerseys to fruition and the media for spotlighting this success story.
As we look forward to World Cup 2014, what will be the sustainability headline for the next event? We hope it involves expanding the use of recycled products but also reviewing the sourcing of those materials and keeping those materials in an infinite closed loop.
While using recycled content has many environmental benefits, the sourcing and application of these materials needs to be considered. Recycled content can be subject to contamination from its previous application. Hazardous colorants, coatings, alloy or polymer components, toxic heavy metals, or other additives may become part of the substrate material (or even be liberated into the larger environment) during recycling. As a result, you may be getting more than you planned for in the recycled material.
For example, most PET production is catalyzed with antimony trioxide, which remains as a residual in the polymer matrix after manufacturing and even recycling. Antimony trioxide is a suspected human carcinogen that is toxic to the reproductive system and has been shown leak into the environment during the manufacturing process and use phase under normal use conditions.
Ensuring that recycled and virgin materials are safe requires being diligent about sourcing. MBDC has developed a process that includes having the supplier document the chain of custody and previous application of the material, verify ingredient formulation to the greatest extent possible, and test for the most likely contaminants. We often use lab testing based on material type to check for the most likely contaminant material type. However, individual tests will find only specific chemical constituents, and adding tests for more contaminants can quickly increase the expense and make supply chain documentation all the more valuable.
MBDC has helped the Victor Group integrate this process in the manufacturing of Cradle to Cradle Certified Eco Intelligent Polyester fabric (right). The Victor Group sources virgin polyester fiber catalyzed with an alternative to antimony trioxide and has created a product that achieves high ratings for its human health, environmental health and recyclability attributes.
In addition to looking back in time (up the supply chain) for a recycled material, a manufacturer also should be looking forward in time by designing the next application of the product. More specifically, the product should be assembled in a way that also facilitates easy disassembly of components for recycling.
Beyond that the manufacturer also should collaborate with other organizations (including manufacturers or suppliers that could use the material in the future, governments managing recycling systems, haulers and processors of recycled materials, companies that provide “reverse vending machines” (RVMs) to collect used packaging, and others) to promote the collection and reuse of the material in an application that allows it to be recycled yet again.
MBDC client Shaw Industries has done this successfully and designed a truly “carpet-to-carpet” closed loop system. Shaw carpet tile (left) is designed so that the infinitely recyclable EcoWorx backing and Eco Solution Q nylon fiber can be shredded and separated at end-of-life for recycling in separate streams and then later recombined into new tiles, Shaw also labels each carpet tile with a toll-free number for customers to call and have used tiles picked up for recycling.
Reaching beyond recycled content requires a manufacturer to understand a material’s previous use and potential for contamination, design the next use to maintain the material’s recyclability, and help enhance the system for recovering and recycling the material after its next application.
In the end, sustainability cannot be judged by a product alone or a recycling system only – the two are inextricably linked and should be designed to work together as effectively as possible. As more and more manufacturers step up to the challenge of both improving their material formulations and developing closed loop systems, we hope to see many more sustainable solutions being showcased at the next World Cup in 2014.