Recycling, and recycled content are good, right? Yes, but with some products you must look beyond that to decide if a product is truly green.
In a recent webcast on green building product certifications, I gave a counterintuitive example of greenwashing: a "recycled steel cabinet." Based on the number of questions I got about this, I realized this needed some more explaining.
Don't get me wrong: I'm very much in favor of recycling and laud the steel industry for its recycling rates. But a claim of recycled content in a product can be misinterpreted, and there's also more to the relative greenness of a cabinet than recycled content. Here's what I mean:
Recycling metals, including steel and aluminum, is vital. It dramatically reduces the embodied impact of the material relative to virgin (mined) metals. Continued focus on increasing reclamation and recycling rates is of great importance.
"Recycling = Good" is a sensible rule of thumb, but your actual mileage will vary. Using recycled content is generally an improvement over virgin material, particularly for metals--but watch the environmental impact. For example, according to ICE the average embodied carbon (kgCO2e/kg) of new aluminum is 12.79, while that of recycled aluminum is 1.81. In contrast, new glass is 0.91, while recycled glass is 0.59. It's possible, either in a specific stream of materials, or in a specific material type, that the environmental impact of collecting, and recycling would be greater than the impact of collecting and processing a virgin material or an alternative material. In that case, the rule of thumb wouldn't hold.
Recycling is one of many single-attribute claims that may or may not reflect the key issues for a product type. It's time to take a broader life-cycle perspective when determining what to call green. For an obvious example, we'd laugh if anyone tried to sell us on a commercial pre-rinse spray valve because of its recycled content without telling us about water usage and performance.
Back to that cabinet: A steel product that heavily markets its recycled content isn't better than a steel product that doesn't market that way. High recycled content is the norm for steel, and so a high recycled content steel cabinet, while a good thing, is status quo. It's cheaper to recycle steel than manufacture virgin steel, and if total demand weren't higher than what the recycled market could provide, steel could be pretty close to a closed-loop system. The steel industry is thus making an appropriate clarification by saying "steel with more than 80% recycled content cannot be described as environmentally superior to steel with 30% recycled content"--and you're not going to encourage greater recycling by specifying recycled steel. (See this EBN article for more explanation of recycled content in steel.)
Consider alternatives to aluminum. Here's another illustration of how a narrow focus on "% recycled content" can send us astray: Recycled aluminum has drastically lower environmental impact than virgin aluminum--so it seems like a no-brainer that recycled is the environmentally friendly choice over virgin. Depending on the product, this may not be the right comparison to make, however. With aluminum, worldwide demand for it is so strong that there isn't enough recycled material to go around. Buying something with aluminum, even if it's recycled, only increases overall aluminum demand. And once that aluminum is out there, only 42% of it will end up back in the recycling loop. If you really need aluminum for the application, choose recycled, but if the incredible properties of aluminum aren't vital for the product, another material may be a greener alternative.
Recycled content isn't enough anymore. With furniture, there are a plethora of different materials and fabrications to choose from. While in the past we might have only had a single attribute like recycled content to assess a furniture product's "greenness," that is no longer the case. Many furniture companies now routinely share a much broader set of environmental characteristics. The BIFMA level certification, a multi-attribute third-party certification, helps us compare products based on multiple environmental impacts. Similarly, GreenSpec looks at a host of different environmental criteria when listing furniture, including product emissions, lower-impact materials and manufacturing processes, and third-party certifications.
Once we get through the glaringly obvious examples of greenwash, it's time to pay attention to greenwash the FTC is never going to catch. When comparing alternatives, make sure the difference is real not just marketing, and look beyond single attributes to what else might be a concern for the product. Parting insight: Our process for listing products in GreenSpec incorporates just the kind of approach I'm talking about here--looking beyond a single attribute. Our list of recycled-content products is best-in-class green from a broader perspective than one single attribute. (We also display products based on LEED credit, such as contributing to MRc4.)
Illustration: Julia Jandrisits
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