Every year, we extract tons of material from the earth to create products that enrich our quality of life, and when we’re finished using those products, most of them are disposed of, and some of that material leaks back into our environment in the form of pollution. If we did a better job of recovering those materials, not only could we better protect our ecosystems, but we could literally do more with less – demanding fewer virgin resources from our planet without bringing our global economy to a standstill.
This sounds like a straightforward idea – use the resources we extract multiple times so that we need less of them. And it’s not a new concept. Recycling and re-using materials has been the focus of many efforts for decades. So why continue to focus on this issue? The short answer: there’s still so much untapped potential in how we use those materials and our resources to help the planet and ourselves, but we need to think differently in order to unlock that potential. In doing so, we could extend the life of our natural resources.
While it may sound simple, reaching the vision of a world where the majority of materials are fully or significantly recovered and can be used to make new products multiple times over (a concept known as Cascading Use) is very challenging. The factors that make recovering material so difficult are embedded in the way our economy functions and are outside the control of any one organization. Right now, there’s no easy way to source secondary materials (those made from recycled or recovered resources) in consistent quantity and quality because they’re not traded in the same way as virgin materials. Add to this that the availability of these materials depends not only on the existence of local recovery programs but also on individuals to participate in them consistently, a system that hasn’t yet taken hold everywhere.
This makes the problem tough to tackle on a meaningful scale. That’s why WWF convened a group of organizations to launch the Cascading Materials Vision – a framework of guiding principles for decision making that protects the future wealth of our natural resources. The Cascading Materials Vision aligns many organizations around this common goal in order to provide a platform for reaching the scale needed to unlock the potential of cascading use – and that potential is huge for the planet.
Let’s put some of this in perspective. We all use aluminum. Whether it’s to wrap up leftovers with foil, build the frame of our cars, or to drink our favorite can of soda, aluminum is a regular part of our lives. It takes 95 percent less energy to recycle aluminum and use it again than to extract brand new aluminum. If we all recycled our aluminum, that would lead to incredible savings of money, energy and resources, making it a win for everyone. And yet, even with aluminum cans, a product we all know how to recycle, we only do it 67 percent of the time, according to data released by the Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) and Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in 2012. If we did a better job recycling and re-using materials we’ve already extracted, we wouldn’t just save energy and resources, we’d also make huge strides toward alleviating the impacts of improper waste management.
By using materials more than once, we can quite literally do more with less. Having better material systems and waste management in place is essential for meeting the pressures of a growing global population and emerging economies that put stressors on our precious ecosystems. For every minute that passes, the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic finds its way into the ocean. This wreaks havoc on our cherished ecosystems and represents an unparalleled missed opportunity to recover resources. We can change this.
The positive impacts of reusing materials are clear. Recycling plastic packaging alone can save $80 to $120 billion annually. Now all we need is a global system in place that makes it easy. That’s what the Cascading Materials Vision will help create, and that’s why we hope more and more organizations will join in making this important work possible. Together, we can turn our vision of a world with better materials management and collaborations that have system-wide scopes into a reality.
Erin Simon is WWF's Deputy Director for Private Sector Engagement, Sustainability R&D.