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It's a well-known fact that Canadians are committed to recycling and as it turns out, we're really good at it. According to a recent GfK Roper Green Gauge Global survey, Canadian consumers rank first in recycling out of 25 countries surveyed. But while we have an insatiable appetite for recycling, there is still work to be done in the fight to reduce our environmental impact and preserve natural resources for future generations.
As the World Wildlife Fund's recent Living Planet Report revealed, Canadians use the equivalent resources of 1.5 planets to support our activities. The WWF goes on to report that if everyone on Earth lived as the average Canadian does, we'd need 3.7 planets worth of resources to support the demand.
The point here is clear: recycling alone is not the answer. This is where the concept of a circular economy comes in. It marks the next big step in our path toward creating a more sustainable future.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as, "an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design." Unlike today's "take, make, waste" economy, where end-of-life products are simply thrown out when they are not recyclable or repairable, a circular economy focuses on keeping these materials, products, systems, and business models at their highest level of value and utility at all times so as to eliminate waste and pollution.
With a circular economy, one of the goals is to design for better end-of-life recovery, while also minimizing energy use. For businesses, this not only means designing and building products for recyclability, but also making it easier for customers to play a role in end-of-life recovery efforts.
But to fully realize the idea of a circular economy, consumer perceptions have to change.
Two main factors often hold consumers back from purchasing products containing recycled materials. The first is a perceived notion that these products have lower quality. This is simply not true. Many consumers already use quality products containing recycled content without even knowing it.
Take the printer inkjet cartridge as an example. Once an inkjet cartridge is empty, it can be returned to the manufacturer who removes the plastic, along with other recyclable materials, and reformulates it so that it's as good as new. That recycled plastic then gets used to make a new ink cartridge with the same superior quality as one with no recycled content. This is a closed loop recycling process which demonstrates how a manufacturer can reduce the environmental impact of a product, without compromising quality.
The other issue is that consumers often expect products with recycled content to be lower priced. This is not always the case because the cost to recover and recycle materials can be expensive; especially in our country where a large geography and dispersed population drives material recovery and recycling costs higher.
The good news is that in many industries, the ability to manufacture new products using recycled materials is becoming more cost effective – leading to reduced consumer prices as well as new business models.
In our case, that meant the development of a new printing subscription service, which allows consumers to choose from different monthly service plans based on the amount of pages they print. The printer, which communicates back to us via the Internet of Things, automatically orders ink when it's needed, preventing the customer from ever running out – and more importantly, generating less waste in the process.
A fundamental aspect of the subscription model – and how it fits into our circular economy principles – is that we provide prepaid envelopes which allow customers to easily return used cartridges back into the closed loop recycling process. For us, building cartridge recycling right into the business model allows us to prolong product lifecycle and significantly reduce material consumption over the traditional supplies purchase model.
To propel the circular economy, businesses must deliver products, practices and service offerings that make it easy for their customers do more and consume less. This commitment can even extend to the packaging that surrounds their products. By finding ways to use less material, optimize shipping densities, and capitalize on recycled and recyclable materials, businesses can lower the greenhouse gas emissions and raw materials use associated with packaging and transporting their products.
The journey toward a circular economy is a long one. We know businesses need to play a key role, but in the end, so do every day Canadian consumers through the choices they make.
Both the business world and consumers must take the next step beyond traditional recycling efforts by pro-actively supporting products that are part of a closed loop process or those containing recycled materials.
It's a big step, granted, but one Canadians will need to embrace if we want to continue being recycling leaders – and secure a sustainable future.
Mary Ann Yule (@hpbiznow) is president of HP Canada.