Approaches to sustainability have been widely varied to meet an assortment of end goals, be it decarbonization and abating climate change, decreasing the use of harmful and toxic substances, or diminishing overall waste. However, while everyone is trying to achieve sustainability, some may blunder into solutions that do more harm than good or miss out entirely on better alternatives. We debated the potential pitfalls and dangers of "sustainable" technologies; this blog highlights four traps to avoid when creating sustainability-focused strategies:
Incorporating waste streams as a new source of feedstock can prolong the loop and extend a material's effective service life. However, the creation of new multi-component products can raise concerns around long-term performance and path dependency. Instead, groups seeking to find EOL solutions should maintain the purity of distinct materials ecosystems and keep loops relatively circular, sticking to monomaterial designs where possible without convoluting otherwise disparate materials economies only for the sake of consuming waste.
Companies must recognize the distinction between novel ideas and feasible ideas and generate solutions based on technology adaptability, performance, cost, and consumer adoptability. For example, sustainable materials like paper bottles, introduced as an alternative to glass bottles, will create more waste due to the challenges in recycling plastic-lined paper today and the likelihood that many companies aren't using any technology to allow for that separation. Depending on the application, clients should focus on simplifying existing products and properly recycling the materials that are already in use before introducing an entirely new technology paradigm.
Recycling, or making a product recyclable, is not the only method for creating a circular economy. Strategically decreasing production and consumption of materials like flexible plastics that are low in value and difficult to recycle can both alleviate the severity of the waste problem and simplify the complex requirements that advanced recycling technologies would otherwise need to meet. By eliminating specific materials from the equation, EOL technologies can better complement existing waste streams that are easier to process. In the EU, Parliament has pushed to bring down consumption and end planned obsolescence for everyday products – key moves that go hand in hand with developing EOL processes.
With multiple pain points hampering the realization of a circular economy, those interested need to avoid simply replicating the past with only minor tweaks. Address the cause of the problem instead of pacifying the symptoms by evaluating the entire value chain from materials sourcing to product design, improving postindustrial and post-consumer waste collection and infrastructure, advancing recycling and other EOL solutions, or completely shifting existing materials systems. Further, in addition to building collaborative networks, governments and companies must plan for the ramifications of growing populations and the resources needed to support sustainable industrialization. Through global partnership and sharing of best practices, developing countries could leapfrog technologies and implement even more optimized infrastructure.
While there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to achieving a circular economy, clients must earnestly avoid the above pitfalls when designing their sustainability roadmaps. Using holistic frameworks and feasibility checks to meticulously pursue the most impactful pathways forward can help keep companies on track and make sure they're not missing out on better, more competitive solutions.