23 Apr 2019 - We are at a moment in history that is unprecedented. Every week, young people are taking to the streets to demand action on climate change. The 150,000 students who protested on March 15th know all too well that drastically cutting carbon pollution during the next 12 years is not just essential to stopping the worst effects of climate change; it’s essential to creating a sustainable global economy.
We can't just fuel-switch our way out of climate change. We need a new business model that shifts the industrial approach of "take, make, dispose" to a more circular approach, where products are recycled, upcycled and reused. Businesses across the globe must innovate new ways of creating sustainable products, and policymakers must demand it from them. That means incentivizing and, in some cases, mandating that products are designed and produced with extended use and reusability as main features, not as afterthoughts.
To realize the idea of the circular economy, we must change how we view "waste" and eliminate the thoughtless amounts we produce as a global society. Manufacturers and creators of products have a growing ethical business responsibility to ensure that continued reuse is the destination for what they sell, not the landfill.
There is currently a significant amount of attention on this issue because of the proliferation of single-use materials globally. Images of a garbage patch twice as big as the state of Texas that is currently floating on the surface of the Pacific Ocean have been a wake-up call for many.
Some preliminary steps have already sparked hope in the effort to eliminate single-use materials that end up in landfills. The European Parliament approved a measure that will ban certain single-use plastics by 2021. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has teamed up with the UN Environment Programme to unite more than 350 organizations "on its common vision of a circular economy for plastics, keeping plastics in the economy and out of the ocean." And some of the world’s largest consumer brands have signed on, such as PepsiCo, Nestle and Unilever.
If your company is using single-use materials for things like packaging, consider more innovative alternatives. For example, the Danish beer company Carlsberg is reducing plastic use with its new "Snap Pack" technology that replaced plastic wrap for its six packs. Glue now holds the cans together instead of plastic. This is a simple yet innovative idea. Other businesses can have a major impact by adopting the same or similar technologies.
Businesses can also adopt practices to tackle sustainability by looking at traditional methods used across the world. Social media users on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms recently saw this point on full display when viral news spread that a supermarket in Thailand eliminated plastic wrap for produce by wrapping fruits and vegetables in banana leaves. Biodegradable products are readily available almost everywhere, even if banana leaves are not.
For example, Dell began using bamboo for distribution and shipping nearly a decade ago. Bamboo is revered because it is biodegradable, compostable, durable and economical. Rwanda -- a country that was among one of the first to ban plastic bags -- is also shifting heavily toward using bamboo for packaging.
Reusable Building Materials
Another major producer of global trash is the building sector. According to a study done by the World Economic Forum, the building sector accounts for more than one-third of all global solid waste. Virtually all that waste ends up in landfills.
As Bill Gates points out, "As the urban population continues to grow in the coming decades, the world’s building stock is expected to double by 2060—the equivalent of adding another New York City monthly between now and then."
With all the economic development expected in the next few decades, coupled with the challenges we already face, we cannot continue constructing buildings with materials that will eventually go to landfills. The consequences are too significant.
We need to embrace -- and policymakers need to incentivize -- the concept of "design to deconstruct." This simple approach can be pivotal in moving us to a waste-free society: Construct buildings with materials that can be reused after a building’s life to construct new buildings.
However, it doesn’t always take new, innovative products to create sustainable buildings. Marble, spruce floorboards, matting and other buildings materials, such as stone wool (which, full disclosure, is a product solution our company offers), can all be reused to construct new buildings if they are installed to eventually be disassembled.
We can put a greater emphasis on sustainability by salvaging materials to reuse before demolishing buildings to make way for new ones. Constructing buildings with reusable materials ensures fewer materials end up in landfills while improving the energy efficiency of buildings and significantly decreasing the amount of carbon pollution that goes into the air.
The Bottom Line
Every company can benefit from having a chief sustainability officer or sustainability team empowered to find ways to reduce waste in its supply chain. And policymakers should continue demanding more sustainable innovation from businesses to tackle climate change and waste.
The bottom line is that there’s an immediate need to reduce the amount of waste we’re producing, almost all of which will eventually impact the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. Businesses and developers are already receiving market and regulatory signals that point to investments in more sustainable products, materials and practices. The future health of global sustainability depends on it.