Asset Management

Help manufacturing move from linear to more circular models

It’s breaking my heart and there’s not much I can do about it, so I’m asking you, who make all these recyclables possible, to keep in mind the need to close the loop on them.

By Paul Studebaker

Last month, we stepped in it with some comments on immigration, and one of our readers called us on it (p. 16). As I mention in my reply to his letter, I was wrong to allow us to raise a topic not directly or even indirectly related to process control, or at least, about the process industries, especially one that has been so controversial lately. I try to treat Control as a special-interest magazine, like Car & Driver, Sports Illustrated, Bass Fishing or Guns & Ammo, and I believe that partisan politics have no place in a special-interest magazine, simply because we like paying attention to our special interests, and we don’t want our enjoyment distracted.

That doesn’t mean we can’t brush up against topics of political disagreement—like the role of renewable energy, government regulation and even global warming—but only in the pursuit of a better understanding process control, or improving results in our process industries.

Our readers—you—make high-quality feedstocks and incredible products that amaze me every day. I can’t go into a Walmart without explaining to the cashier that double-bagging is almost always unnecessary, that the engineers who designed the materials and the plants that make them and the bags do such good work that even the heaviest groceries are very unlikely to escape a single bag.

Then I take those beautiful bags, boxes, bottles and cans home, consume their contents, and am stricken with the need to let go of the resulting empty containers. Engineered plastics, exquisitely decorated metals, beautiful glass jars and perfectly appropriate cardboard packaging must be relinquished to their fate, and for me, that’s a big, blue mixed-materials recycling bin, collected every two weeks by Waste Management.

I used to feel good about it, but now I understand that much of these recyclables, which used to ride virtually for free in empty shipping containers returning to China, is no longer up to Chinese standards—it’s too contaminated with crud and the wrong materials. Our recycling facilities are accumulating excessive stockpiles, and in many places, recyclables are ending up in landfill with the regular garbage.

Technologies for separating recyclables into useful raw materials has come a long way, but making it easier will require cooperation all the way from your plants to my blue bin. Meanwhile, it's common and not cheap, so there has to be a market for the materials that can justify the higher costs.

It’s breaking my heart and there’s not much I can do about it, so I’m asking you, who make all these recyclables possible, to keep in mind the need to close the loop on them. Ethical Corp. ( calls it “going from a linear to a circular economy” and I’ll admit, it’s a heavy lift. But if a company like BMW, which produces a product (motor vehicles) that’s a nightmare for complete recycling, can be designing for exactly that, who can say it’s impossible? (For some really disturbing videos, google “BMW Cars recycling”).

Many environmental purists don’t appreciate it, but one option is using paper and plastics as fuel for trash-to-energy facilities. No one knows better than you how to incinerate your products cleanly and efficiently, and how to capture the maximum fuel value (for a starting point, see “Covanta Indianapolis”).

But better yet would be ways to somehow include post-consumer recyclables as feedstocks. What could you use? What would be your specifications? Make a market, and challenge recyclers to produce a suitable product.

Meanwhile, please also feel free to close the loop on the quality of one of your special-interest publications—Control magazine. Call us out when we cross the line. Correct one of our mistakes, help us clarify our confusions, and suggest topics we should be covering to earn your attention.

Then, of course, please recycle the magazine. I expect I’ll be buying some of it at Walmart as part of a new, beautiful box around some raisin bran.