A closed-loop supply chain approaches being a Platonic ideal for those interested in sustainable operations. In a perfect world, anything a firm sells would be taken back and somehow recycled. It may take energy and effort, but it would still be more efficient in terms of cost and waste output than starting from scratch. Wal-Mart has started taking steps in this direction, recycling cardboard boxes to make boxes for their bake at home pizzas:
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(See also this post on Fastcompany.com) While this video is clearly a publicity puff piece, it demonstrates that Wal-Mart is committed to increasing the sustainability of their operations. It should be noted that this effort has several things going for it. First, Wal-Mart as always benefits from scale. Sure a recycler will sign up to take Wal-Mart’s old boxes because that is about as steady a supply as you could hope for. Also, there seems to be little difference between corrugated cardboard made from recycled boxes and cardboard made from newly cut trees. A paper mill veteran may be able to tell the difference, but the average consumer probably can’t. Even if the consumer could, that likely wouldn’t affect their decision to shop at Wal-Mart. People are buying the pizza — not the box that it is in.
Contrast that with the problems faces by Green Foam Blanks, a company recently profiled in the New York Times (Surf’s Up, Waste’s Down, Nov 19). The firm makes blanks — pieces of foam that can be shaped into the core of a surfboard. Turns out surfboards are typically made out of fairly nasty materials. From How Products Are Made, we have the following:
Some of the materials and processes used in building a surfboard are hazardous. Surf-board builders must use the proper safety equipment and have an understanding of the dangers involved. The polyurethane chemicals used to make the foam core are toxic and flammable. This process requires explosion-proof fume removal equipment and careful control of the room temperature and humidity. The shaping process produces fine foam dust which can be harmful if inhaled. A dust mask is required for the person performing this task. Finally, the laminating resin gives off poisonous fumes which require the use of an appropriate respirator for the person doing the glassing.
Green Foam aims to reduce the amount of toxic material the industry consumes.
They collect polyurethane cuttings from surfboard factories and, using a proprietary process, mix the trimmings with virgin foam to create a blank that is 60 to 65 percent recycled waste. The goal is to reduce production of new foam, which is typically made with a carcinogenic compound called toluene diisocyanate, or TDI.
“Every day in Southern California, about 800 boards are being shaped and as much as 40 percent of each blank, which contains toxic materials, ends up being put into landfills,” said [co-founder Joey] Santley.
So far they have sold 1,000 blanks. But they seem to have the odds stacked against them. Unlike Wal-Mart, they lack scale. Further, a recycled blank may not be completely interchangeable with one made from virgin materials:
Matt Biolos, a leading surfboard shaper known in the industry as Mayhem and an owner of Lost Enterprises in San Clemente, said he had tried making boards from greener blanks, but they did not measure up to polyurethane products.
“Surfers are not going to sacrifice the performance of a light board for being green,” Mr. Biolos said.
The key advantage of Green Foam’s recycled blanks, he said, is that they are priced competitively, perform like new polyurethane boards and do not require shapers to change the way they make boards. The down side is that Green Foam produces a higher rate of defective blanks, he said, a problem Mr. Santley acknowledged.
Finally, let me point to recent survey on green procurement (What Does It Mean When Procurement Goes Green?, Nov 19, GreenBiz.com). One of the points it makes is that firms are considering sustainability issues more for office products and cleaning supplies. This aligns with the points above: it is easiest to consider alternative purchasing criteria when (like pizza boxes) those criteria do not have a direct impact on why customers buy your products or patronize your services.