Manufacturers use Cradle to Cradle principles to achieve a circular economy

Manufacturers use Cradle to Cradle principles to achieve a circular economy

Fall 2019 | Written by Katharine Logan

IIn an ideal world, every enterprise would form part of a circular economy: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. It’s a lofty goal, but with the current take-make-waste linear system so clearly reaching its limits, it’s a goal whose time is now.

Even before the circular economy was known by that term, leading enterprises began using the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) standard to implement a commitment to material reutilization and related goals of material health, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness. Two of these early adopters, flooring manufacturer Shaw Industries and cleaning products manufacturer Method, spoke recently with USGBC+ about how they’re operationalizing circularity across their enterprises.

“Before you can even begin to think about a circular economy, you have to make sure you’re circulating the right things,” says Kellie Ballew, director of sustainability at Shaw Industries. “Cradle to Cradle provided that framework for us.”

To achieve a carpet-to-carpet cycle, in which Shaw’s C2C Certified carpet tiles could be reclaimed and remade, certain materials—such as antimony trioxide flame retardant and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalate plasticizer—had to be eliminated. The groundbreaking reformulation that achieved this enables the company’s EcoWorx backing to be recycled, while also making the overall carpet tile 40 percent lighter than coating with conventional, PVC emulsion.

Shaw is the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, with 85 percent of its products C2C certified. The company has reclaimed and recycled almost a billion pounds of used carpet waste.

Technical innovations in the chemistry of the nylon face fibers make them fully recyclable as well: Rather than downcycling with each iteration, they retain the properties of virgin material through an indefinite number of cycles—and they’re cheaper, too.

To ensure Shaw would be able to take its reclaimed carpet tiles apart and recycle them into new versions of themselves with the same level of economy and utility, the company designed and vetted the reclamation technology for years before it expected to see postconsumer product coming back. It adapted equipment from other sectors, such as agriculture and energy, as well as designing its own.

“A lot of work went into building the manufacturing capability to a scale where, not only could we take back product from the market place, we could also consume our own waste,” says Ballew, who was an engineer with the company during that period.

Shaw’s commitment to circularity has also driven the company to ask more from its supply chain. “Often, our partners have unique abilities to bring recycled content into our raw materials,” says Ballew, “so, in addition to optimizing our own reuse cycle, we can also use postindustrial and postconsumer waste products as feedstocks.” So, the C2C standard evolves over time, and as additional chemicals enter the banned list, Shaw asks its suppliers to reformulate.

Kellie Ballew is the director of sustainability at Shaw Industries.

Shaw took what the company learned with EcoWorx and extending it to their next product, a hard flooring.

The impacts of this supply-chain engagement can be far-reaching. For example, nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are surfactants identified as toxic to aquatic life, have been widely used in applications ranging from textile processing to paper coating, so when Shaw requested a reformulation, says Ballew, the greening of that raw material extended to its supplier’s other clients and their sectors as well.

Shaw is now the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, with 85 percent of its products Cradle to Cradle Certified (based on sales unit volume) and investment in circular product development ongoing. Since 2006, in an industry where 95 percent of what’s conventionally produced ends up in a landfill, The company has reclaimed and recycled almost a billion pounds of used carpet waste.

Challenges remain, however. The main one, says Ballew, pertains to the logistics of getting products back from the marketplace, an issue compounded by the many hands involved. In response, Shaw is engaging with the C2C Products Innovation Institute to connect with contractors and subcontractors who do the actual work of removal. The company has also preprinted an 800 number on the back of every carpet tile, so that whenever the carpet is taken up, the contractor can simply contact Shaw to arrange for its no-cost return.

Throughout the development and ongoing manufacture of EcoWorx tiles, Cradle to Cradle has brought rigor to the process, says Ballew. “It has provided a holistic approach for us, and third-party validation of our efforts, from way before the circular economy had a name, and even before Cradle to Cradle Certification existed.”

Where Shaw has developed a loop through which its product can be recycled back into itself, Method, a cleaning products manufacturer, has taken a different tack. It’s obviously impossible to recycle laundry detergent like a carpet tile, so instead, Method’s products are designed to form part of a larger loop in which ingredients come from the environment in benign forms and return equally benign. With this approach, Method has achieved Cradle to Cradle Certification across its entire permanent product line.

“C2C Certification looks at biological and technical cycles distinctly,” says Saskia Van Gendt, Method’s senior director of greenskeeping, “and that’s very relevant for our products.” The biological cycle assessment covers the company’s liquids, ensuring that they will biodegrade safely, while the technical cycle evaluates the liquids’ packaging.

With guidance from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, advisors on material health and the creators of Cradle to Cradle, Method developed an internal tool, called Compass of Clean, for evaluating its ingredients in the biological cycle.

Compass of Clean uses the same thresholds that C2C has defined for biodegradability and for human and environmental health exposure pathways (such as skin irritation and aquatic safety), and scores every ingredient and product from design all the way through to certification. “Certification becomes just the final marker of validation,” says Van Gendt.

As a technical cycle, Method’s packaging, which is often plastic, is evaluated for its recyclability and for its incorporation of a high percentage of salvaged material.

Some of Method’s bottles consist entirely of postconsumer plastic, for example, while others incorporate ocean-recovered plastic as well. This cycle, however, is not a tight loop in which the packaging can be reclaimed and reinvented indefinitely. In recognition of this, the company’s business model encourages extending the life of the packaging in its original form for as long as possible, through refilling programs, before it’s recycled for another use.

In addition to its product cycles, Method extends C2C principles to its enterprise as a whole. In 2015, the company built a LEED Platinum factory on the south side of Chicago, bringing good jobs to a neighborhood suffering from the departure of its traditional industries.

“I like to call our factory the biggest product we’ve ever made,” says Van Gendt, “because it really uses a lot of the same philosophies we apply to our products.” Construction materials were selected using Cradle to Cradle protocols, with C2C Certified products used where available. Onsite renewable energy from sun and wind supplies much of the facility’s needs.

Method has even brought its bottle-making partner into the factory, colocating for integrated manufacturing. “We took our bottles from being produced over a thousand miles away to a thousand feet,” says Van Gendt. Because bottle manufacturing tends to be one of the most intensive parts of the company’s supply chain, she says, “It’s great to be able to use renewable energy to produce them.”

Looking ahead, both Van Gendt and Ballew report that there’s still work to be done. For Method, it’s the constant vigilance of ensuring that new products meet and exceed C2C standards. For Shaw, it’s taking what the company learned with EcoWorx and extending it to their next product, a hard flooring.

Since their companies began closing the loop in their respective industries some 20 years ago, both have seen a dramatic shift in corporate and consumer awareness of the environmental priority. As the transition to the circular economy accelerates globally, says Van Gendt, “It’s great to think we have played at least a small part in pulling it along.”

Saskia Van Gendt is Method’s senior director of greenskeeping.

As a technical cycle, Method’s packaging, which is often plastic, is evaluated for its recyclability and for its incorporation of a high percentage of salvaged material.

Just How Attainable Is it?

Cradle to Cradle promotes the principles of circularity in a way that ensures manufacturers are using appropriate products through appropriate practices, and only then putting materials into perpetual cycles of use. The product standard’s five performance categories—Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy and Carbon Management, Water Stewardship, and Social Fairness—work together to foster safe, circular, and responsible products. But circularity is an ambitious goal. Just how attainable is it?

“People are excited about the concept, but can be overwhelmed by the factors of implementation,” says Peter Templeton, president and CEO of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. They may also have doubts about how much difference one product or manufacturer can make, he adds. “We know that, individually, none of us is able to change all of the infrastructure that’s needed to scale to a truly circular economy,” says Templeton. “But these changes can be realized through aligned expectations, actions and commitments of manufacturers across the globe.”

A framework for those changes is part of what C2C Certified provides, structuring manufacturers’ efforts to plan and implement a circular economy to the degree within their control, whether that’s boosting a product’s renewable content, designing for disassembly, or planning more thoroughly for subsequent stages of use.

Preconditions for success include an increased degree of consciousness—and conscientiousness—around corporate, product, and process decision making, backed by a real commitment. Beyond the requisite mindset, a company needs to develop a thorough understanding of its impacts—from its product, its organization, and its industry sector.

Method’s bottles consist entirely of postconsumer plastic.

Peter Templeton is the president and chief executive officer of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

“We have to take more responsibility for product cycling even after they are in the consumers’ hands,” Templeton says. “We have a responsibility. We’re seeing stronger recognition of that responsibility, and that’s where a lot of solutions are coming from.”

One of the obstacles to achieving true circularity is the reality that, even when a process results in environmentally benign materials being made available for reuse, there isn’t necessarily anyone ready to use them, so waste can still ensue. To prevent it, committed manufacturers are planning ahead for how end-of-cycle materials will reach their next stage of use.

In some cases, that’s leading to major transitions in business models, where the line between product and service begins to blur. Lighting as a service, for example, enables a manufacturer to reclaim end-of-cycle materials and become its own supply chain. But in other cases, the infrastructure needed to move materials to their next point of use is lacking.

“As our economy is structured right now, there are a lot of hand-offs that take place blindly,” says Templeton. “We need to see where connections can be made, and anticipate them on the front end. Those industry collaborations will be the true linchpins in the success of the circular economy.”

Likely to facilitate those collaborations are emerging data-based innovations such as blockchain and material passports, which have the potential to more widely enable the identification and recapture of product constituents. In the meantime, says Templeton, “the stories we’re able to tell as a result of product and sector successes are giving us hope that the circular economy is within our reach.”

LEED and the Circular Economy

With a triple bottom line approach that is both comprehensive and integrated, the specific measures by which LEED supports the circular economy may not be immediately obvious. “Sometimes concepts and outcomes are so embedded in the rating system, it can be difficult to pinpoint the relevant credit strategies,” says Emma Hughes, a project manager at USGBC. “In fact, the goals and outcomes of the circular economy align really well with those of the broader LEED rating system.”

LEED’s Materials and Resources (MR) credits, including such strategies as whole-building life-cycle assessment, material ingredient reporting, and construction waste management, have long rewarded the minimal and optimal use of materials. As LEED continues to raise the bar in this area, project teams are proving quick on the uptake. Since LEED 4.1 for Building Design and Construction and Interior Design and Construction launched in beta in March 2019, teams trying out new credit versions often choose from the MR suite: the category accounts for nearly 40 percent of individual credit substitutions. “While these concepts may be challenging,” says Hughes, “we’re definitely seeing a market response.”

Looking upstream to eliminate waste before it happens is critical to furthering the circular economy, and up to five LEED credits are available to projects that reduce demand for new materials and prevent waste of existing ones by renovating, salvaging, and reusing existing buildings and materials.

Additional points reward the use of products verified to comply with the principles of a closed-loop economy. Going further, if facilities have solid waste diversion of 90 percent or better, they may certify under the GBCI-administered Total Resource Use and Efficiency (TRUE) Zero Waste program, with TRUE Platinum-level projects also eligible for LEED Zero Waste certification.

With a slew of LEED strategies helping project teams to design waste out of their developments and to keep products and materials in use, says Hughes, it’s clear that “improving efficiency, optimizing resource use, and delivering a healthier, regenerative built environment are the goals of both LEED and the concept behind circular economy.”

How LEED v4.1 addresses the circular economy

By Emma Hughes

See how LEED v4.1 credits advance circularity goals.

USGBC’s vision for materials and resources in the built environment comprises three strategies: reduce embodied carbon; protect human and ecological health; and advance the circular economy. While we focused on how LEED v4.1 addresses embodied carbon in a May article, these strategies are interdependent and require continuous optimization of products and material. How does the newest version of the rating system advance the circular economy?

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy captures the benefits of materials throughout their life span and seeks to keep materials in circulation as long as possible. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing and closed recycling loops. A circular economy is the opposite of a linear economy—the standard “take, make, dispose” model of production—and it represents an unprecedented opportunity to reduce costs, embodied carbon and strain on natural resources and ecosystems.

Sustainable choices for the whole life cycle

The Materials and Resources (MR) credit category in LEED advances a circular economy with credits that reward project teams who minimize and optimize the use of buildings, building products and materials throughout the project life cycle, from construction and demolition waste management planning to product selection and ongoing sustainable purchasing.

With LEED v4, USGBC introduced concepts into the rating system such as whole-building life cycle assessment and material ingredient reporting and optimization, which required project teams to quantify and understand the impacts of material use on human and ecological health. These new concepts complemented longtime LEED criteria for construction waste management and responsible sourcing of materials. In the newest version of the rating system, LEED v4.1, MR credit requirements continue to advance a circular economy.

For new construction and major renovation projects, MR prerequisites require all teams to reduce construction and demolition waste disposed of in landfills and incineration facilities by recovering, reusing and recycling materials and to provide infrastructure that supports storage and collection of recyclables during building occupancy.

Upstream waste reduction

With foundational strategies that minimize waste generation during construction and operation in place, to advance a circular economy, a LEED project team must look upstream in the supply chain and identify opportunities to eliminate waste before it arrives at the project site.

To incentivize source reduction and eliminate the use of unnecessary building materials, MR credit Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction rewards up to five points for building reuse, the renovation of an abandoned or blighted building, and the reuse or salvage of building materials from off-site or on-site. Restoring existing buildings or structures reduces energy and waste associated with demolition and construction, and the reuse or salvage of building materials can significantly reduce the amount of virgin materials used for construction.

After eliminating upstream waste, teams can earn additional points by selecting products that are third-party verified to meet circular economy principles: the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) credits reward products and materials that disclose material information and meet best-in-class sustainability criteria.

Materials selection and accountability

Environmental product declarations contribute to a circular economy by providing information that enables consumers to understand the environmental impacts of various products and make informed decisions about materials selection.

The BPDO–Sourcing of Raw Materials credit defines key components of circular manufacturing strategies, including extended producer responsibility, bio-based materials, sustainably harvested wood products, materials reuse and recycled content. The BPDO–Material Ingredients credit rewards teams for selecting products that fill in data gaps and minimize the use of hazardous substances.

Together, the LEED v4.1 credits represent a framework for advancing a closed-loop economy by increasing market demand for recycled content, healthier materials that can be reused or repurposed in an “infinite loop,” and products that practice responsible sourcing and extraction of raw materials.

Through LEED v4.1 for Building Operations and Maintenance: Existing Buildings, existing buildings have an opportunity to advance the circular economy in their day-to-day operations by making intentional decisions related to purchasing, maintenance, waste diversion and recycling.

Zero waste goals

Also available to existing buildings projects is USGBC’s LEED Zero certification, which verifies the achievement of net zero carbon, net zero energy, net zero water, and/or net zero waste. LEED Zero recognizes market leadership in resource stewardship among LEED projects. The LEED Zero Waste certification is available to projects that have achieved TRUE certification at the Platinum level. TRUE is the most comprehensive zero waste certification available in the market, helping facilities to define, pursue and achieve their zero waste goals through project certification and a professional certificate program.

Advancing a circular economy requires a paradigm shift in the way products are designed and the way we produce and consume materials, necessitating collaboration among and integration of multiple stakeholder groups—all the way up the supply chain, at all stages of the building life cycle.

LEED v4.1 rating systems provide a framework to make informed decisions about material circularity, including choosing products and materials that are made from renewable or recycled feedstocks; that have been designed to enable reuse, repair and remanufacturing; and for which systems exist to capture and recover materials for as long as possible.

Learn more at Greenbuild

We continue to make updates for circularity in LEED, too. Join us at the Field Guide for Circularity workshop at Greenbuild, where leading industry experts and practitioners will explore proven approaches and strategies for prioritizing material health, transparency and circularity in building products selection and purchasing. This workshop is designed to equip architects, designers, specifiers, project managers, contractors and manufacturers with tools and frameworks that will enable smart decision making to realize material health and circularity goals at the building level.

Check out the workshop

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