The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, with research and database expertise from Guidehouse, produced a first-of-its-kind report to showcase the economic and environmental value of the circular economy (CE) in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region (GLR). By tracking the potential economic impact through available and forecast data, the report has outlined how companies operating within specific sectors can translate CE opportunities into business best practices that unlock new growth, competitiveness, and innovation.
Results demonstrate vast economic and environmental benefits for adopting a circular economy in the GLR. Among the three materials studied, the economic benefits range between $4.4 billion to $5 billion USD. The environmental benefits are equally advantageous, with reductions in greenhouse gas emissions ranging from 35 million to 120 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2). Finally, the report’s findings also reveal the importance of developing incentives that facilitate innovation and greening of the value chain, encouraging partnerships and collaboration to foster circularity, aligning the circular economy with mainstream policies, developing traceable actions and targets that hold stakeholders accountable for their progress, and embracing the social aspects of circularity to implement measures to support this shift. With these tactics in place, businesses in the GLR and beyond can achieve profound economic and social impact through the circular economy.
Best practice case studies were included in the report to provide qualitative depth and highlight circular leadership across the three materials of focus—steel, plastics, and wood/paper. These case studies from Kohler, Steelcase, Whirlpool Corporation, Clearwater Paper, Procter & Gamble, Sappi North America, WestRock, Schnitzer Steel, and Dow, have been compiled to inspire action from other companies and amplify the impact of their efforts.
American Forest and Paper Association, Steelcase, Whirlpool, Kohler, and Great Lakes Governors and Premiers (GSGP) underwrote and contributed to this research, which was released in January 2020 and available here.
- Clearwater Paper CompanyClearwater Paper's Nuvo® Cup Stock: Achieving Improved Sustainability Through Balanced Design
- DowDow: Using Recycled Plastics to Pave Roads and Parking Lots in Michigan
- Kohler Co.Kohler Co.: Redesigning Engines for Circularity
- Procter & GambleProcter & Gamble: How2Recycle
- Sappi North America, Inc.Sappi North America, Inc.: Thermal Energy Circles
- Schnitzer Steel IndustriesSchnitzer Steel Industries Inc.: Recycling Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow
- SteelcaseSteelcase: Partnering to Foster the Circular Economy
- WestRockWestRock Company: Advancing Food Service Packaging Recycling
In 2017, Clearwater Paper evaluated an upgrade to the performance and sustainability of its cup stock paperboard produced at the Lewiston, Idaho, mill. Using a stage gate process, Clearwater Paper determined there were opportunities to better meet the needs of the next generation of consumers while producing a superior performing product for its converter customers. In fact, the company identified multiple improvement opportunities, and as a result, created a fresh brand to better represent the new capabilities. On March 25, 2019, Clearwater Paper launched NuVo® with increased levels of post-consumer recycled fiber content, also featuring the Forest Stewardship Council chain of custody certification. The print surface allows for enhanced graphic design capabilities with reduced ink usage. NuVo’s brand features combine multiple sustainability values, strengthening the company’s circular value chain. The graphic below provides a list of the brand’s attributes.
One of the key sustainability gaps the company identified was a lack of post-consumer recycled fiber (PCF) cup stock in the market. Clearwater Paper identified three reasons for the reduced use of PCF: fiber cost, cup forming performance, and paperboard color/shade. The cup forming process stresses the paperboard, and a balance of strength, stretch, and flexibility is needed to form a tight cup rim and bottom, especially at high forming speeds. PCF does not have the strength and stretch characteristics of the longer, unprocessed virgin softwood fiber. Most paperboard machines in North America make a single ply paperboard sheet. On single ply machines, it is difficult to direct distribution of different fiber types. Higher concentrations of PCF blended into a single ply may weaken the cup stock performance, which can cause cup forming issues that result in downtime or reduced forming speeds. There is a limit to PCF fiber content in cup stock. Virgin fiber is needed to balance performance.
Advancing the circular economy is a pillar of Dow’s 2025 Sustainability Goals, and the company is on a relentless pursuit of solutions. One area of focus for these solutions is used plastics. As the world’s largest producer of polyethylene—a key ingredient used to create high-quality plastics—Dow recognizes its responsibility and opportunity to minimize plastic lost to the environment and maximize its potential as a reusable resource.
KOHLER CO.: REDESIGNING ENGINES FOR CIRCULARITY
Since 1873, Kohler Co. has sought to provide a high level of gracious living to anyone touched by its products and services. From beautiful kitchen and bath products and innovative power solutions to developing clean water, sanitation, and community development solutions around the world, Kohler Co. believes that better business and a better world go hand in hand. It is Kohler’s goal to enhance the quality of life for current and future generations through design, craftsmanship, and innovation fueled by the passion of more than 37,000 associates worldwide.
Kohler’s Design for Environment Program
In 2011, Kohler Co. began using Life Cycle Inventory to understand the environmental impact of Kohler products and optimize the design of those products and the processes associated with manufacturing them. Circular economy principles directly correlate to what Kohler calls Design for Environment (DfE).
Design for Environment is exactly as it sounds. Kohler is designing new products and services with the environment in mind. The process starts by asking many questions, such as:
- What renewable materials can be used in this project?
- How can the company avoid creating a lot of waste?
- How can it be ensured that this product performs well but uses less water?
- How can the company design for serviceability?
The detailed step-by-step DfE model enables Kohler to make many improvements:
- Rethink design aspects, including materials, longevity, and disposal at the end of a product’s useful life.
- Focus on how consumers use Kohler products.
- Look for opportunities to minimize a product’s manufacturing, packaging, and transportation footprint.
As part of Kohler’s Positive by Design program, the company is reshaping how it approaches the design of everything. Kohler Co. has had many success stories using the DfE Model, but none so prestigious and impactful as the Crackle Collection Tile, in partnership with ANN SACKS. The WasteLAB at Kohler, in Kohler, Wisconsin uses pottery cull, iron slag, and left-over glazes and enamel powder to create this unique line of ceramic tiles. The tile is an example of looking at materials differently and diverting waste from going into the landfill.
The Circular Economy at Kohler Co.
Being a diverse organization provides Kohler Co. with a tremendous opportunity to innovate, especially in terms of environmentally mindful design and materials. As part of a regular evaluation of existing and new product design in 2011, the Kohler Engines team identified an opportunity to update engine housings, which were originally made from plastic virgin material.
A cross-functional team of engineers and supplier quality specialists based in Kohler, WI, collaborated with the housing manufacturer and resin supplier in Evansville, Indiana, to evaluate recyclable materials to replace the virgin plastic. Throughout the process, the team manufactured and tested a large quantity of parts for functionality and analyze dimensional capabilities. A polypropylene, made from post-consumer recycled waste, was selected during the first phase of the project.
Using post-consumer waste posed challenges to the team as the waste often contained nondesirable foreign materials, such as un-separated nylon, staples, and wood. These foreign objects shortened the life of the tooling equipment, leading to inefficiencies in the manufacturing process. Upon further evaluations and testing, the team changed the material to 100% post¬industrial regrind, made from recycled carpet waste. Using post-industrial waste is an example of industrial symbiosis, in which the consumption of energy and materials is optimized and the byproduct or waste of one industry serves as the raw material for another industry.
The team also reevaluated other engine parts, such as blower housing, air cleaner covers, and bases, which were subsequently switched over to the post-industrial material. Another learning curve for the team in using the recycled material was managing the tight dimensions with limited tolerance. The team mitigated this issue in 2013 by redesigning the 7000-series, this time with recycled materials in mind.
Minor adjustments were made to the recycled plastic parts, making it easier to assemble and accommodate how the material shrinks and distorts. Switching to the recycled material in 2011 took much effort, but no more than switching to a different manufacturer or grade of material.
The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) focuses on providing branded products of superior quality and value to improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come. The company was incorporated in Ohio in 1905, having been built from a business founded in 1837 by William Procter and James Gamble. Today, P&G’s products are sold in more than 180 countries and territories serving the needs of more than 5 billion consumers a day.
More and more, the world is depending on companies to make sustainable choices. As one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, P&G feels an environmental responsibility to do the right thing.
During Earth Week in 2018, P&G released new sustainability goals called Ambition 2030. These broad-reaching goals have one purpose in mind: to enable and inspire positive impact on the environment and society while creating value for P&G as a company and for consumers. P&G has committed that 100% of its packaging will be recyclable or reusable.
As part of P&G’s Ambition 2030 commitments, the company has committed that 100% of its packaging will be recyclable or reusable. P&G understands that for its packaging to be recyclable in a circular economy, it must be collected, sorted, and processed and end markets must exist for the resulting material. To enable the full value chain of recycling, P&G’s Family Care brands first design for recyclability. P&G’s Bounty and Charmin brands include the How2Recycle label on the packaging instructing consumers to recycle the polyethylene film wraps through store takeback and recycle the cardboard cores in their home recycling. Puffs cartons are also recyclable by consumers through curbside recycling. To help ensure end markets for recycled materials, Bounty and Charmin cardboard cores and Puffs cartons will contain 100% recycled fiber within five years.
P&G Family Care’s journey to enable the circular economy model started by defining what needed to be true for packaging to be recyclable. First, Bounty and Charmin wraps had to be constructed of a mono-material. Polyethylene bags were collected by many major retailers, so this was a good place to start. Bounty and Charmin were able to design polyethylene wraps that could be recycled in this existing stream.
The How2Recycle is a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public. It involves a coalition of forward-thinking brands that want its packaging to be recycled and is empowering consumers through smart packaging labels. By utilizing the How2Recycle label, Charmin and Bounty communicate to consumers that they can recycle the packaging by returning the wraps to the store on their next shopping trip. The bags and wraps collected via in-store take back programs are processed and converted into a new film or are used in composite building products.
In addition to enabling the store to take back film, P&G is also supporting a large-scale pilot to demonstrate the feasibility of curbside collection of flexible film packaging. Curbside collection of flexible film could unlock the recovery of millions of pounds of valuable material that currently goes to landfill—helping further the circular economy objectives. The initial pilot covering 300,000 households is an important first step in trying to scale and reapply the approach.
Charmin, Bounty, and Puffs also looked at what could be done to support the circular economy. By working to convert the cardboard cores and cartons to 100% recycled fiber content, the brands will be supporting paper recyclers by purchasing recycled materials. The cardboard cores and cartons are also recyclable, continuing the circularity of those packaging components.
By 2025, all of P&G Family Care packaging will meet the criteria of the circular economy model.
Sappi North America, Inc. is a market leader in converting wood fiber into superior products that customers demand worldwide. The success of the company’s four diversified businesses —high-quality Coated Printing Papers, Dissolving Wood Pulp, Packaging and Specialty Papers, and Casting and Release Papers—is driven by strong customer relationships, best-in-class people and advantaged assets, products, and services. As the world is demanding more and more from the planet and resources are being consumed at unprecedented rates, Sappi is dedicated to operating its manufacturing sites in a highly sustainable manner.
The pulp and paper industry is water and energy intensive, and Sappi North America’s Somerset Mill saw an opportunity to reduce both its energy associated footprint and its costs. The Maine-based mill was built in the 1970s and 1980s and wanted to improve upon many of its older practices. A project was developed to provide process hot water for Paper Machine No. 2 (PM2) and Paper Machine No. 3 (PM3) using recovered heat to offset the use of low-pressure steam.
Originally, the Somerset Mill was designed to generate hot water for its paper machines using low pressure steam, which was produced by way of burning fuels, a costly method. Now, newly installed heat exchangers capture wasted heat and use it to heat the water needed elsewhere in the manufacturing process.
The update included adding heat exchangers, ductwork, pumps, and a great deal of piping, instruments, and controls. Modifications were also made to the PM3’s dryer steam system to reduce blow-through steam that was being used to generate hot water in the dryer section vacuum condenser. All of this enabled greater use of hot water generated from recovered heat and a reduction in steam use.
This project was commissioned to remain competitive with newer pulp and paper mills by reducing the operating costs of PM2 and PM3, decreasing traditional fossil fuel use, allowing for reduced purchased electricity, reducing waste, and lessening greenhouse gas emissions.
Sappi leveraged a program administered by Efficiency Maine, which provides incentive grants to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This grant reduced the estimated project costs and increased its return significantly, making it a good business decision as well as falling in line with the company’s sustainability goals.
Because the project reduces the mill’s steam production requirements and fuel use in its power boilers, it is projected to save more than 3,700 tons annually of greenhouse gas emissions. By supplying PM2 and PM3 hot water tanks with water heated by recovered heat sources instead of steam, the steam valves that previously heated the water are now closed most of the time—thereby reducing low pressure steam requirements.
In the first three months of operation, the project saved Sappi North America more than 39,500 gigajoules of energy derived primarily from a reduction of fossil fuel use by the power boilers and the generation of additional electrical power in the mill’s steam turbine generators to offset purchased power. The project was estimated to save 158,000 gigajoules of energy annually, and although this is less than 2% of the Somerset Mill’s energy use, it equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual savings. This is equivalent to the annual energy to heat 1,600 single family homes.
Sappi North America hopes that these experiences encourage other companies in the pulp and paper industry—and any energy intensive industry—to make similar, sustainable changes.
At Schnitzer, sustainability is at the core of what the company does every day. With approximately 100 auto and metal recycling facilities throughout the U.S., Western Canada, and Puerto Rico, Schnitzer diverts and reuses millions of tons of materials each year that might otherwise be destined for landfills. The ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metal it processes is used to manufacture new metal-based products that reduce energy consumption, conserve natural resources, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on ferrous scrap volumes in fiscal year 2019, Schnitzer avoided over 4 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. This is the equivalent of taking more than 900,000 cars off the road for an entire year. Also, Schnitzer’s efforts saved 10 million gigajoules of energy, enough to power 260,000 homes for a year, and over 7 million cubic meters of water, equivalent to almost 5,400 Olympic-size swimming pools. And, impressively, Schnitzer’s industry-leading recycling technologies helped avoid the use of over 10 million cubic meters of landfill space, equivalent to the amount of landfill used by almost 6 million U.S. residents annually.
Examples of Materials Recovered in Fiscal Year 2019 from End-of Life Vehicles:
- 1,700,000 gallons of fuel
- 9,700,000 pounds of batteries
- 12,000,000 pounds of tires
- 1,300,000 gallons of used oil
Steelcase is the global leader in creating products and solutions for offices, schools, health care facilities, and other types of workplaces. Over 100 years old, Steelcase is the largest global furnishings and work environment company with about $3 billion USD in sales, more than 800 dealer partners, and 1,700 patents worldwide. In the last five years alone, it has served over 110,000 companies.
The paper industry has been planting trees and manufacturing products made from renewable and recyclable fiber in the GLR for more than 100 years. Sustainable forestry practices and continued demand for forest products have contributed to the growth of forests across the U.S., and the nation has more trees today than it did on the first Earth Day in 1970. Ensuring forests are healthy and productive is critically important. Forests provide habitats for diverse species, remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and act as natural filters to protect fresh water supplies.
Papermaking is inherently circular. Paper mills use wood not only as a primary raw material, but the residual bark, pulping liquor, and wood fiber are used as a renewable energy source. Mills that use virgin wood fiber recycle pulping chemicals internally and reuse process water about 10 times on average before treating it and returning it to the environment. Paper mill byproducts also can be used as raw materials for nonpaper products, such as agricultural soil amendments and animal bedding.
Paper is one of the most recycled materials in the U.S., with recovery growing to an average of 68%, and packaging recovered from industrial, commercial, and residential consumers is recycled into new paper products. Paper mills in the GLR, including WestRock’s 100% recycled paperboard mills, are leading industry efforts to increase recovery further by recycling packaging that has not been widely recycled in the past—specifically paper cups and other foodservice packaging.
Historically, paper-based foodservice packaging, which includes items such as single-use cups, takeout cartons, and pizza boxes, has not been widely accepted in recycling programs owing to concerns over polymer coatings and food contamination. Paper cups, in particular, have not been widely accepted in recycling programs owing to concerns over the thin polyethylene lining that acts as a barrier to liquids. Many believed this lining could not be removed in a typical continuous pulping process, where operating conditions employ short dwell times and low temperatures, or at mills without an enhanced screening system to remove the liner.
Recent testing by WestRock has found that, in fact, the poly-lining does separate cleanly during typical pulping conditions and is removed by typical screening systems. Since there are low volumes of poly-lined paperboard on the market and available for recycling, this product can be mixed into existing streams, such as a residential mixed paper, and processed at paper mills without impacts to yield, the production process, or finished product quality. Mills that batch pulp aseptic and gable top cartons also are able to incorporate poly-lined foodservice packaging into its furnish.
The number of cities accepting cups and other foodservice packaging in residential recycling programs is growing. WestRock recycling facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, began accepting foodservice packaging in its residential recycling collection in 2017. This packaging is then processed at the company’s paper mills into various new fiber-based packaging products, including cereal and tissue boxes. Today, in the GLR, many paper mills accept paper cups, milk cartons, and juice cartons in the recycled furnish they use. In the case of Sustana, recycled cups are used to make post-consumer bleached recycled pulp that can be incorporated into new paper cups. Sustana, WestRock, and Seda, a cup manufacturer also located in the GLR, have partnered with Starbucks to demonstrate how used cups can be recycled into new ones.
The paper industry in the GLR is doubling down on its commitment to recycling by accepting additional packaging types for processing. The industry is looking to partner with communities in the GLR to bring this the circular economy opportunity to scale.
WestRock is a multinational provider of paper and packaging solutions for consumer and corrugated packaging markets. It partners with its customers to provide differentiated paper and packaging solutions that help them win in the marketplace.
Location of paper mills that accept foodservice packaging in the GLR