Recycling re-invented - could manufacturers be doing more to design recyclability into their products?

Recently Adidas, one of the world’s largest sports clothing and apparel brands announced that it aims to stop using virgin resources and manufacture entirely from recycled plastics by 2024. An ambitious goal. To support this pledge Adidas started eliminating all use of virgin plastics from their retail outlets, offices, warehouses and distribution centres in 2018. According to a CNN article this is estimated to save 40 tons of plastic per year.

But Adidas are not the only global brand looking towards a more sustainable approach to manufacturing. Landrover Jaguar are currently experimenting with recycling aluminium from old vehicles to make components for its newer models. Volvo too is getting on board with a pledge to use at least 25% recycled plastics in its manufacturing by 2025.

Could this be the future for recycling and manufacturing?

Manufacturing recyclability is a major mindset shift that takes into consideration the circular economy. Since the start of industrialisation manufacturers have taken a linear approach, using virgin resources with the aim of turning out consistent quality products. A noble aim, but it has come at a cost that is only now starting to be recognised.

In the past 50 years the use of plastics has increased 20-fold. Plastics are now clogging up the oceans and water resources, destroying habitats of wildlife and poisoning ecosystems – especially the cities that humans inhabit. Ultimately the noble goal has turning into a curse that humanity is now trying to resolve at a frantic pace.

Previously in manufacturing, recycling was only really considered in terms of the back end - waste products and disposal and then only based on the costs involved. There was this belief that resources were vast and waste was an unavoidable by-product of manufacturing that needed to be dealt with. But as we now know, this old model for manufacturing, aiming for efficiency and cost reduction and remaining unconcerned about resource use and waste is not sustainable. It’s time for a new approach and we are now seeing a number of manufacturers embracing the circular economy.

What is driving recycling innovation?

The short answer, as most people now know, is that there is simply too much waste and virgin resources are running out. Even resources that we previously thought to be endless are becoming scarce. Water, for example. Pollution has damaged both fresh water resources and the oceans. Overfishing has led to the depletion of fish stocks and global warming is inhibiting ecosystems ability to balance themselves. Finally, big business is starting to listen to the voices of environmentalists, if only because it’s starting to impact their bottom line.

Traditionally the argument was that recycling cost too much and the quality was always inferior compared to virgin resources. However, now with virgin resources becoming scarce, there’s no longer such a major difference in the costs of recycling. Also, let’s not forget that recycling has come a long way and with the aid of technology, there have been vast improvements in the recycling process. There are now many more ways in which recycling can be applied to different manufacturing operations. I know the price of oil impacts plastic recycling, hence the reason big business needs to drive the use of recycled materials up and the use of oil down.

Combining the push and pull factors - the need to reduce waste and find alternate resources - is ushering in a new wave of innovation. It’s about time too. Manufacturers are now asking the question: Can our waste become our resources? It is the right question to be asking. If global brands such as Landrover Jaguar and Adidas are exploring this route you can be sure that it’s not just for a PR exercise, more likely it is because they recognise the opportunity for not only sustainability but also greater profitability.

The circular economy is going to become increasingly important in manufacturing. There is a great deal of opportunity for engineers, operations people and those with innovative ideas to make their mark. There is an urgent need to find ways to manufacture that reduces the reliance on virgin resources. More importantly, recycling is increasingly going to be about finding more innovative ways to reuse waste and turn it into a resource. Are we on the cusp of a revolution where manufacturers fully embrace the circular economy?

Some manufacturers recycle waste into biodiesel which is then used as fuel for their distribution fleet. McDonalds have done this for years. Others are using the heat generated from manufacturing machinery to generate energy for lighting or heating water to be used in other elements of the manufacturing process.  Recycling is being re-invented, what are your ideas for changing manufacturing to a circular economy?