In the first installment of this circularity series, we started by looking at the concept of circularity and current efforts with a critical eye. We need to find and fill current gaps in order to make circularity efforts scalable. Today “circularity” as a term is often overused and partially-executed, meaning that companies commonly coin the term but rarely embody true circularity. In this part of the Toxnot Circularity Series, we will explore material transparency as an often missing first step towards circular products.
The Unspoken, Yet Essential Step Towards Circularity
The interest in circularity by product designers has excellent potential for many sustainability goals. Unfortunately many organizations are thinking of material transparency as parallel goal rather than integral part of circularity. It is much easier and more glamorous to make bold claims about circularity - how a company is going to repurpose all of their scrap materials or how they are going to launch a brand new take-back program. Seldom do we hear about the how - how will the take-back program work, how are they prioritizing maintenance, repair, and redistribution in their supply chain and business model? Part of this is necessity as many of these steps are far into the future. Nonetheless, material transparency which is determined in product design, is left out of the conversation when it should arguably be the first point of discussion. One of the best way to future-proof circularity efforts is to engage in rigorous materials transparency efforts during design so that future recycling efforts have the best chance to work with products that are taken back.
What do we mean by material transparency?
Material transparency is knowing what your product is made out of - really made out of. For example, a wood flooring company knows their product contains wood, an adhesive, a stain, and a finish. That is certainly a step towards transparency, but full product knowledge means knowing exactly what substances and chemical registry numbers make up that adhesive, stain, and finish. A threshold of 100 parts per million (PPM) is standard for most material transparency goals.
Why is material transparency important?
Circularity cannot exist without knowledge of product ingredients. This is a fact of circularity, which makes the absence of transparency in sustainability conversations even more striking. Material is the essential step in circularity that no one wants to talk about because of its inherent complexity.
Many manufacturers are not fully aware of the chemicals that are in the goods that they make and sell. This is why the focus of mainstream recycling has historically revolved around goods that are largely homogenous in construction, like plastic bottles, scrap metals, and paper. These products are easy to identify and their compositions are largely known and consistent among producers. However, the circular economy is contingent on the maintenance, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling of complex, heterogeneous goods. Full product knowledge opens doors to circularity that previously never existed.
The fact of the matter is that we have a lot to lose without material transparency, and a lot to gain from it through a circular lens.
- Worker safety: Material recycling is often a hands-on process. Complete knowledge of the chemicals that are found in a product can ensure that employers are aware of the risks associated with a given product and that workers are provided the correct PPE. Ideally, chemicals that pose a risk would be engineered out of the product to ensure that its recycling poses less risk to humans, but we have many existing products that don’t quite meet that expectation.
- Batch contamination: Only a small amount of a toxic substance is needed to contaminate an entire batch of materials eligible for recyclability. For recyclers whose bottom lines depend on the quality of their outputs and companies that depend on the availability of recycled materials, contaminated batches equate to slimmer margins, outright waste, and a shortage of materials. Furthermore, all of our efforts in the creation of safer materials will be undone if they are implemented into a recycling ecosystem that bears a toxic legacy.
- Higher value: Recycled materials whose compositions are fully known and accessible have higher monetary and quality value because an element of mystery is removed. Buyers of recycled materials should be willing to pay more for materials whose compositions are fully known because there is no doubt regarding the material’s toxicity. Additionally, a key tenant of circularity is to keep materials in use at their highest value and recycle them into higher-value products. Product knowledge can better inform how it will perform in the useful life, re-manufacturing, and recycling environments.
- Regulatory compliance: Chemical regulations are constantly changing, especially for firms that sell in a diversity of global arenas. Knowledge of chemical composition lowers the costs and time needed to remain compliant should a product be affected by a regulatory change. It also lowers the risk of fines, recalls, and remediation expenses. Being in compliance reduces barriers against circular products and initiatives.
Strongly implied in the definitions and ideas of a circular economy is the notion that any materials that are used need to be safe for humans, non-humans, and the environment, ensuring that hazardous materials are not endlessly recycled with unintended consequences. Essential to making this notion a reality is the recirculation of clean inputs. The journey towards material transparency is the process through which clean input utilization can be established. Without the capacity to verify that inputs into the circular economy are safe, the idea of the circular economy poses a greater threat to human and environmental wellbeing than existing manufacturing from virgin materials.
Product passports as a path toward transparency
Another challenge of material transparency is what to do with that information once it’s collected and how to ensure it’s being shared within and between organizations to meet the needs mentioned above. One solution is a “Digital Product Passport” or DPP, a term developed by the EU to describe the digital data associate with a particular product or material. A DPP would include formulation data, recycling and end-of-life instructions, and other product attributes. The goal of a DPP is to provide equal access to a form of universal digital data that can be exchanged without loss of information. Manufacturers and recycling facilities would ideally have a DPP for all materials in their product composition, providing the full visibility that circularity requires for its next steps.
While DPP’s are still very much in the development stages, Toxnot’s Shared Materials platform is an example of what a DPP would look like. This platform, which is openly accessible to consumers and users across the value chain, enables suppliers to upload their products’ data into Toxnot for free. This feeds into a searchable, secure, cloud-hosted database for anyone looking to use (or already using) these materials in their own products. Both buyers and sellers save time as Shared Materials eliminates the need to create and respond to redundant requests for information. Products that are uploaded to Shared Materials can be updated, historical iterations can be saved, and buyers can be notified when the product is altered. Most importantly, publishing a Shared Material reduces the need to re-enter material data elsewhere while ensuring its continuity and quality.
Corporate responsibility and challenging the status quo
Perhaps the biggest challenge that stands in the way of large-scale circularity is the long-standing status quo. Data secrecy, thin supplier profit margins, and complex supply chains are standard in most industries and become a significant hindrance to attaining material transparency.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams commonly have large goals and aspirations to make sweeping changes within their companies. Unfortunately, CSR teams are often caught in conflict with legal teams and some company executives about what they can actually accomplish. This can prevent CSR teams from participating in circularity efforts and making the change they would like to pursue. Individuals want to make a difference, however, long-established supply chains are hard to change, especially when they seem to be working just fine from a production and profit perspective. To meet the sweeping circularity efforts we all hope to achieve, companies need to better support and incentivize supply chain partners in the interest of planetary health.