Circular responsibility

At the core of the circular economy concept we find the closing of material cycles through recycling of by-products and wastes (what some people call the “End-of-Life”, see also my earlier blog-post). Recycling is also a topic that has been investigated widely in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), but here it has turned out to be one of the most difficult areas in which to ensure correct information and to avoid greenwashing. Many seek to use recycling as an argument for avoiding responsibility for environmental impacts. So I thought it might be time to summarize some of the problems we have encountered in our LCA practice, and in this way also inform the circular economy discussion on how to tackle the allocation of responsibility and credits for recycling.

In a situation where all the material for recycling is fully utilised:

  • We have seen unfortunate examples where producers seek to wipe off part of their environmental impacts on a high-value by-product, using allocation methods in violation of the ISO standards on LCA, instead of taking responsibility for how their by-products are being treated. An example is where the meat industry seeks to make their meat products look better by allocating part of the meat production impacts to the leather industry – an industry that cannot influence the meat production because there is less supply of hides than what is needed to meet the demand (a situation that is observable from marginal purchasers of leather products needing to accept synthetic alternatives). Instead, meat producers with an ISO-compliant life cycle approach take responsibility for their hides, and to choose the least environmentally impacting processing route, thus stimulating improvements in the leather industry – improvements that are much more difficult for the leather industry when left alone and even burdened on top with “responsibilities” for agricultural activities over which they have no influence.
  • We have seen examples where producers seek to take credit for the imaginary benefits of recycling a fully utilised waste material that would anyway have been recycled, compare their recycled products to virgin products, and spending their efforts on competing for the already fully utilised waste material. Instead, producers that follow an ISO-compliant life cycle approach take credit for the actual expected benefits that their recycling activities provide as services to the producers of the waste, and spend their efforts on competing for making the largest benefits from the recycling activity itself.

In a situation where the material for recycling is not fully utilised, i.e. where surplus materials are being disposed of in e.g. a landfill or stockpile, the options and incentives for greenwashing are smaller because here the users of the surplus materials indeed should take credit for removing materials from the landfill or stockpile, thus reducing environmental impacts. The largest errors we see are when suppliers of the surplus materials seek to take credit for the recycling benefits of that part of the material that is being utilised, when in fact the extent of this recycling is determined by the demand for the surplus material and therefore cannot be influenced by the material suppliers.

So, in conclusion, true circular responsibility is when producers take responsibility for how their by-products and wastes are treated, and avoid taking credit for non-existing recycling benefits.