We are on an increasingly unsustainable path when it comes to the use and waste of our natural resources. Economic growth, swelling populations, and increasing consumption rates around the globe are working together to create an exponential rise in waste production. In the office supplies world alone, most of the materials in the $60-$70 billion cubicle furniture sector are being thrown away or recycled for scrap steel value.
Incremental improvements, such as increased recycling, longer lasting material, and more efficient processes are all welcome, but they won't be enough to stem the tide entirely. We need to rethink the entire waste system, and move from a linear model – where items are made, used and thrown away – to a circular system that breaks the cycle of disposability and natural resource use.
Coming full circle
A linear model of production starts with resource extraction, then manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and eventually, waste disposal. In a circular model, reuse and recycling focuses on putting materials back into the system, cutting out both waste and the need to extract more raw materials from our environment. In the circular economy, products are designed to be reused, not just once, but continually, keeping the cycle moving forward.
To this point, much of the remanufacturing efforts in the marketplace have involved heavy machinery or other industrial equipment, so despite the success of such programmes, the circular economy hasn't broken through to consumer consciousness. Yet there is so much potential for business savings as well as improved environmental impact.
At Staples, we've been implementing this technology for years in our remanufactured ink and toner products. The programme has been in place since 2005 and we have recovered and recycled over 600 million cartridges. These cartridges are engineered to perform as well, or better than, traditional versions, yet they contain 87% post-consumer recycled content, taking materials out of the waste stream. After the cartridges can no longer be remanufactured, 100% of the materials are ground down and turned into calculators and staplers.
Staples has also partnered with Davies Office, a recognised leader in green remanufacturing and sustainable office furniture. Remanufacturing is a more comprehensive process than ‘refurbished', ‘rebuilt', or ‘recycled'. Davies disassembles older furniture first to break it down to core components, then remanufactures it into new pieces. This way, dated office designs can be reworked for the needs of today's employees, incorporating collaborative spaces and options for sit-stand desks. Additionally, through remanufacturing – which allows saving on new materials costs as well as storage and disposal of the older items – the company has tracked savings between 40-70%.
But that's just the cost savings – the reduced environmental impact is also significant. The Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology examined Davies' remanufactured Steelcase workspace products and found the environmental impact for categories like climate change, metal and fossil fuel depletion, and terrestrial acidification was greatly reduced, with a majority of the categories indicating reductions of greater than 80%.
Thinking in a truly circular mode, the benefits aren't a one-time event. The materials can be reused again and again, reducing the impact on the environment each time the product is remanufactured. And it's important to note that these products don't sacrifice quality, fit, form or function compared to a new model.
Moving to the circular economy is a ‘win-win-win' for businesses, consumers, and the environment. More examples like remanufactured office furniture, where consumers can see, touch and feel the benefits of remanufactured products, will help raise awareness. The circular economy is the best way to take dramatic steps beyond simple good environmental practices in order to truly reinvent the way we create, consume and reuse office products.
Mark Buckley is the former VP of Sustainability for Staples Inc. He directed Staples' global environmental and sustainable business practices and was responsible for driving the company's sustainability efforts.
Mark's close look at the circular economy and its impact on the workplace and the environment originally appeared on OPI.net