Special report: Product stewardship – is it for real?
Willow Aliento | 1 October 2015
Product stewardship – it’s a term right up there with “we aim to minimise our impact on the environment” in company green PR-speak. But there are many experts in the sustainability sector who are concerned that such claims are not being reflected in reality.
The reasons range from the churn of staff in commercial tenancies, lack of accessible take-back mechanisms on the part of manufacturers, and lack of oversight, regulation or compliance monitoring by just about everyone.
John Gertsakis, chief sustainability officer at InfoActiv, says there needs to be more measurable, publicly available data to support product stewardship claims.
“Do we know as a percentage of what is put on the market how much is recovered for recycling or reuse?” he says.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric and corporate spin – for example around carpet and furniture – but how is it actually performing? How much is really being diverted from landfill?
“We need metrics and meaningful data, and it must be publicly available.”
Mr Gertsakis says without intelligent regulations, or oversight by bodies such as the Green Building Council of Australia, products that come into a Green Star building and gain kudos for product stewardship policies on the part of their manufacturer are likely to still wind up in landfill.
“Who’s checking?” he says.
“How do you build confidence in the market and in terms of the [building] tenants that these things mean something longitudinally? If these environmental features and benefits are being based on the life of the product, what are the track and trace mechanisms?”
He points out that public waste reduction campaigns are largely focused on end-of-life resource recovery.
“There is a lot of lip service paid to reuse and second life,” he says, “but more government dollars going into recycling than re-use.”
In terms of the big picture, Mr Gertsakis says there needs to be a commitment along the line to ensuring that buildings use products that can be reused, recycled or remanufactured.
“Clients have a role to play,” he says. “It should be in their brief to the architects. There is a great onus on developers and institutional investors to be building in those [lifecycle] considerations from the outset.
“It needs to go all the way through from the manufacturer, to designer, corporate bodies and agencies. Those considerations should be standard and locked and loaded.”
He says that if there was greener procurement across the board, the result would be greener buildings. To get there will require a “tighter brief, all along the way”.
There is also a responsibility on the part of designers and manufacturers to ensure products are designed for longevity, repairability, modularity, and also having take-back services in place, as manufacturers that do not have those processes established risk turning product stewardship claims into empty rhetoric. Manufacturer and supplier claims need to be real, verified and subject to robust audit, otherwise it’s window-dressing in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Mr Gertsakis says manufacturers should be designing hazardous substance out of their products as a given, and using benign materials that can be recycled or remanufactured safely.
In the EU directives around electrical goods put in place over a decade ago banned elements such as brominated flame retardants, lead and cadmium that are still permitted in Australia.
“It generated considerable R&D activity and lots of whinging but generally they complied and innovation dominated,” Mr Gertsakis says.
In the Australian context, a similar example is the limits put on formaldehyde in products such as laminates, with manufacturers such as Laminex now producing low- or no-formaldehyde products as standard.
The whole notion of product stewardship also needs to consider lifecycle analysis, he says. Some products, such as timber, may appear a sustainable choice because they are natural, but where the externalities of that product, for example erosion, are not factored in, the footprint might not be as light as it looks.
The entire sustainability tool box needs to be applied, he says, including lifecycle analysis, eco-labelling, product stewardship and several other tools. We need to demonstrate how to achieve circular solutions and responsible prosperity in a pragmatic way.
There needs to be a firm commitment to designing products that can be refurbished, reused and restored – light-weighting them, cutting out the toxics and enforcing some form of extended producer responsibility, such as those who make it take it back.
The European experience, he says, has been that regulations imposing take-back requirements have improved product design, as manufacturers have had to deal with the results of their own design and manufacturing activities.
The GBCA is not checking
A couple of weeks prior to Robin Mellon exiting his role as chief operating officer of the GBCA, The Fifth Estate asked him whether GBCA was doing any checks on the fulfilment of product stewardship claims.
He said that while the Green Star tools recognised third party schemes that incorporate the concept, such as Good Environmental Choice Australia and Global Green Tag, and gives points for the use of those types of products, once they’re in the building, there’s no follow-through.
“At this stage there is no check-back to see if a product has gone back to the manufacturer,” Mr Mellon said.
He said the organisation has been looking at doing this somehow through the Environmental Product Declaration side of things and also through the use of whole-of-life LCA that evaluates every part of the building.
“How do we know if it is [really] cradle-to-cradle, not cradle-to-grave?” he said.
“What we need to do is find a way of ensuring that happens. Just having a take-back scheme doesn’t mean it is [taken back]. And just because it can be recycled, is it?”
Elements of the existing tools he said supported better approaches include points around design for disassembly for fitout items, and the emphasis on reducing waste to landfill during construction.
There are also specific manufacturers, for example Interface, which supplied the carpet tiles in the GBCA lobby, that have a “buy back” scheme for products that have become worn and need replacing.
Mr Mellon said it was similar to “renting” the tiles, and that this approach was a business advantage for Interface.
Desso’s certified cradle-to cradle approach
Another floor product manufacturer, Desso, now part of the international Tarkett Group, announced this month it has become the first carpet tile manufacturer in the world to achieve Cradle to Cradle Gold level certification for a new carpet tile collection. The collection will be entering its key markets next month.
It incorporates an EcoBase backing that contains upcycled re-engineered chalk from drinking water companies that can be recycled, and yarn made from 100 per cent regenerated nylon made from recovered waste materials including post-consumer waste.
The Cradle to Cradle certified product standard requires products to be certified by the independent Products Innovation Institute, based in the US. The company has achieved certification for 93 per cent of the rest of its product range at either Bronze or Silver level.
The company aims to reclaim as much of its products as possible at end of life for remanufacturing to ensure a closed loop manufacturing process.
Ralph Jorissen, managing director of Tarkett Australia, says it introduced a leasing arrangement for its carpet tiles a few years ago so it would effectively retain ownership of the material after its economical life and be able to collect and reuse the materials.
“Recycle is the wrong term,” he says, “we aim to reuse the materials into the same product.”
He says in some countries the idea caught on quickly.
“It starts really with what people who are developing the building put in the tender,” Mr Jorissen told The Fifth Estate.
“In the Netherlands, for example, there has been an increase in tender stipulations around what will happen [to products] after they have served their time. And tenders get points for that.
“We see this in northern and western Europe quite a bit.”
He says that while the company initially thought Australia would also be advanced on this front, looking at the tenders the company has gone through they have actually been “quite weak” on the product stewardship front.
“Especially with the government tenders we would expect that, but we are not seeing it,” he says.
“It is really the government that has to stimulate the right approach and the right mindset, and then that influences key decision-makers.
“In Australia the progress is coming from the larger companies instead. And that’s a pity.”
Mr Jorissen says the driving force for his company is the awareness that humans have been taking more from the planet than it can produce.
“As a producer if you don’t take another approach, one day there will be no more materials,” he says.
“There is not more that can be dug up out of the earth than is in there. I think we are doing something that’s very logical. Cradle to Cradle is a very factual approach for us.”
He says it starts with design – choosing the right materials that can be reused – and then following the product into the market to be sure of getting those materials back.
He says the R&D effort involved in shifting to a C2C approach was “painful”, as there was a need for the company to redesign every product. There has been a lot of discussions around problematic materials such as Vinyl and PVC.
The long term plan is for Tarkett to “simplify the supply chain”, Mr Jorissen says.
“We also aim to try and fit in as much material from other companies as we can.”
The take-back approach has been slow to generate significant volumes of re-manufacturable material, he says.
In 2014, the international operation took back between 14 and 15 tonnes of material. The goal is to be taking back 20,000 tonnes by 2020.
He says the challenges include logistics – how to physically get the carpet tiles back, and to make sure its the right materials coming back – and an economic process to get them. There is also an awareness of the CO2 footprint of take-back, which means needing to locate facilities close to the source.
The company has been recently offering a leasing option of between five and seven years for its products to try to ensure take-back. Mr Jorissen says this is part of the corporate duty of care program.
“It is a way of assuring the life of products doesn’t end in landfill,” Mr Jorissen says.
Another angle on product stewardship is the industrial ecology approach, where the waste of one firm becomes an input for others. The NSW EPA has been working to foster this since 2008 through grants assisting the large scale reuse of commercial and industrial waste by business.
The NSW EPA developed the Industrial Ecology Business Support Network Grants Program supported by the Waste Less Recycle More initiative’s Business Recycling Fund to drive waste avoidance and resource recovery in businesses across NSW.
“The grants of $4.2-million over four years support skilled facilitators that work with medium to large businesses across NSW to develop ways to re-use waste materials, identify waste recycling projects, increase efficiency and save money by reducing waste sent to landfill,” an EPA spokeswoman said.
The program reached the end of the first two year round of grant funding in June 2015. The spokeswoman said that in the first round, over 20,000 tonnes of material was successfully diverted from landfill using local businesses to reuse these resources. Commitments from the first round of participating businesses amount to a further 100,000 tonnes.
“The assistance provided to companies by the program has been well received by the business community, businesses say they appreciate the facilitator’s skills, they identify strategies for recovery and work with them to resolve issues,” the spokeswoman said.
Applications for round two are currently being assessed and should be announced by the end of October 2015.
Edge Environmental are one of the organisations hoping to receive a grant under round two. The grant it received under round one contributed to the recent de-fit churn minimisation project in conjunction with the Better Buildings Partnership.
Research by the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures commissioned by the BBP in 2014 identified that the four biggest barriers to resource recovery in commercial office tenancy fitouts were time, cost, distances and contamination.
Edge Environmental sustainability consultant Blake Lindley, who worked on a BBP pilot defit project at Governor Macquarie Tower last year, says one of the big challenges in terms of ensuring product stewardship promises are matched by follow-through at end-of-life is lack of consistency in terms of tenants, building owners and asset managers.
“People move in and out of jobs, so by the time [a product] is taken out you don’t normally have the same people taking it out as the ones who put it in,” Mr Lindley says.
The fact that product stewardship arrangements attached to a product are often not specified in documentation the tenant or building manager has is also one of the biggest barriers his organisation has observed.
He says there needs to be tracking in terms of the inventory or asset register.
Take-back also often comes with a cost, he says, so while a product might say it can be taken back, it may not be “the cheapest way to get rid of it”.
It might be found during the de-fit that the manufacturer requires the product to be shipped to America for take-back, he says.
Even when there are local arrangements, such as CSR’s commitment to picking up plasterboard waste from construction sites, it is the contractor who usually installs a skip, and the subcontractors dealing with the plasterboard are the ones that have to make the decision to call CSR for pickup. Often, he says, they just use the skip instead and the board goes off to landfill.
Then there is the division of responsibility during Make Good when a tenant departs. The tenant is responsible for disposal of the workstations, the building owner generally manages the carpet tiles and ceiling tiles. And as assets can change hands, that owner might not know if the ceiling tiles or carpet are a brand with a take-back arrangement.
“There is often a knowledge gap,” Mr Lindley says.
“Asset registers should specify stewardship [of products], a lot of owners will have agreements with suppliers, and if that supplier has stewardship arrangement, it should then be dealt with across the portfolio quite easily.”