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Quantifying Our Impact

If most manufacturing processes used waste materials as a feedstock, the world would look very different. For starters, we’d have to stop talking about waste, because there wouldn’t be any – only feedstocks. The extraction of virgin resources would plummet; resources already in circulation would be more valuable, and treated as such.

But it’s easy for companies to exaggerate the good that they’re doing – especially when no-one agrees on what it really means to divert waste, and how to calculate the impact of it.

That’s why we’re committed to being transparent about what we do now, what we’re aiming for, and how we think about and measure our impact. There are three types of environmental impacts that we want to make: recycling rates, waste diversion, and carbon savings.

 

Traceable recycling vs “100% recycled”

This is very rarely strictly true. When most manufacturers say this, they mean – “the household plastics that make up the bulk of our product – like PP or HDPE – are always from recycled source.” But to make products safe, durable, and attractive, many additives are used, from colouring agents, to UV stabilisers and binding agents. And these have to be made from virgin plastics. So almost no manufacturers really make products that are 100% recycled.

That’s why we don’t make those claims. When you buy our products, you’ll get a report saying which recycled sources your products come from, and what else is in them. Between 5-15% might come from these types of additives, but in combination with unique recycling technology, this enables us to use plastic that would have otherwise gone to waste.

 

From waste?

It’s always good to use recycled plastic, because the more demand there is, the easier it is to invest in recycling infrastructure. But there’s a big difference between using high-quality recycled material, and using waste. If the total amount of plastic used by manufacturers in a system is fixed – say, at 30% – then increased demand might increase the cost of that 30%, but the net recycling in the system won’t budge.

That’s why we’re a little precious about the term ‘waste’. It’s good to use recycled content like milk bottles as a feedstock, and sometimes we do that too. But it’s an easily recyclable, highly valuable material on the recycling market – and if you call that waste, there’s no way to distinguish the status quo from processes that use materials that genuinely no-one else can use. This makes it much harder for unique recycling technologies to prove their value to customers.

We want to tell customers exactly how much of their products genuinely would have gone to waste. To do that, we separate feedstocks into three categories, based on their price:

  • Waste feedstocks – Negative value, cost-neutral, or postage costs only. The market sees this as a value-less material because no-one wants it: 100% would go to waste.
  • Low-value feedstocks – £100-299/tonne. This is plastic that might contain some valuable material in amongst the waste. Processors will buy it, extract the good stuff, and dispose of the rest. In the absence of clear methodologies, we estimate that 50% of this would have gone to waste. But in case our estimates are wrong, we separate out the figures for you.
  • High-value feedstocks – £300/tonne+. We occasionally use this to take the edge off more difficult streams.

 

Saving CO2e?

Around half of plastic in the UK and Europe is incinerated in a process that’s more carbon-intensive than the burning of coal in coal-fired power stations (0.898 tonnes/CO2e per tonne burnt).

Some plastic is landfilled rather than incinerated. We estimate that 49% of plastic is incinerated, following national averages, unless we take it from a source we have evidence incinerates it.

This diversionary effect is contained in stage D of lifecycle analysis, ‘Influence’, meaning that it’s outside of the system boundaries. We’ll give you formal Environmental Product Declarations which show the carbon intensivity of our processes, and the amount diverted upstream. Over time, we’ll be decreasing the carbon footprint of our processes further, through things like industrial solar panels, and increasing the amount of plastic diverted in our products. But at the very least, we try out best to divert more carbon that our processes emit in everything that we do, and dedicate our resources to increasing the impact we can make over time.

We’re always looking to improve what we do, so if you have thoughts, reflections, or comments about our impact measurement, we’d love to hear them. Please email ben@circular11.com.  

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