In 2015, the United States construction and demolition industry generated 169 million tons of debris from buildings, more than half of which ended up in landfills. That’s 169 million tons of concrete, wood, wallboard, shingles, brick and clay tiles, and steel that could be reused or recycled. The high volume of materials in this waste stream and in many industrial waste streams, from carpeting and furniture to wall panels, flooring, and electronics, represent a huge opportunity for companies to reduce the amount of materials that end up in landfills by better facilitating material flows.
One such opportunity is a take-back program, an initiative organized by manufacturers or retailers that collects products or materials from consumers when they’ve finished using them. These materials may be cycled back into manufacturing, or companies may simply coordinate end-of-life logistics and material processing. Take-back programs provide a way for companies to get materials returned to them, to take them apart, and put them back to use, which is why they are often touted as important pieces of the circular economy. However, a lot of confusion surrounds the way these programs work. This is in part due to the fact that take-back programs are difficult to evaluate, since their implementation varies so significantly from company to company. This article will help designers navigate these programs better, give a quick primer on the kind of thinking that drives them, and offer some examples that represent the wide range of programs.
Extended Producer Responsibility
Many take-back programs have been implemented as part of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) strategy, through which manufacturers take on responsibility for end-of-life product management and related environmental impacts, instead of the general public and municipalities. The logic is that if manufacturers—who have the greatest control over product design and marketing—are held accountable for the processing and disposal of their products, they are likely to implement changes across all stages of the product life cycle in order to reduce waste management costs. When companies incorporate the costs of processing and disposal into a product’s total cost, they have an incentive to use fewer materials and design products to last longer. At the design phase, EPR also encourages companies to adjust products to minimize negative impacts on human health and the environment. It urges them to reduce material usage, downsize products, and improve product reusability and recyclability.
Since its introduction in Sweden in 1990, EPR has become an established strategy for environmental policy in many countries. It is typically carried out through various policies, including virgin material taxes, product fees and taxes typically called “advance recycling fees,” and product take-back mandates. For example, California currently has EPR programs designed and implemented by manufacturers for products like paint, carpet, and mattresses. These programs provide collection sites and establish requirements for end-of-life management.
In order for a product in the disposal phase to become a useful material to manufacturers, they need to start planning for end-of-life at the design phase. Products and buildings should be designed to be easily taken apart, reused, remanufactured, recycled, or refurbished.
When a product or material is returned to the company that produced it through a take-back program, there are many possible next steps. It could be recycled or reused, its raw materials conserved—offsetting the impacts of extracting virgin materials, reduce landfill impacts, and conserve space in landfills. Alternatively, a company might reclaim materials to convert them into energy or send them to a landfill. Take-back programs are not one-size-fits-all—the existence of a program does not necessarily indicate that a given company has highly efficient end-of-life practices. Rather, it means that the company chooses to take on responsibility for end-of-life material flows, lifting the burden off of municipalities. The impact of the program depends on the company’s best practices and transparency. Here are some examples of different kinds of take-back programs:
- 3form manufactures acoustic panels, acrylic panels, and office partitions. They reuse and recycle materials from panels or installations that were damaged in production. Their Reform program resells materials with minor defects at a low cost to artists and designers. And they use reclaimed materials to make and sell handmade bowls, with 100% of the proceeds donated to a nonprofit that provides sustainable housing to Navajo people.
- Armstrong Flooring produces vinyl sheet, plank, tile, rigid core, and bio-flooring. Their recycling program accepts a wide selection of Armstrong vinyl flooring, as well as flooring made by other companies on a case-by-case basis. Upon approval of a recycling project, Armstrong sends special containers to the site, which are then returned free of charge.
- nora rubber flooring has both a recycling and take-back program. Old flooring can be recycled and turned into part of the raw material base of new flooring, used as substitute fuel instead of gas or oil in thermal power stations, for energy recovery in the cement industry through thermal recycling, or disposed of in landfills. Their take-back program allows users to return waste and scrap material from new installations, which can then be reused to produce new floor coverings, down-cycled into other products, or used to generate energy.
- TorZo Surfaces make solid architectural surfaces from recycled or salvaged agricultural, textile, and forestry products. Through their Waste-To-Energy, customers can reclaim unusable panels or materials at the end of their usable life from jobsites and installations. TorZo pays for transportation and disposes of them in their Waste-To-Energy facility where it is incinerated to produce energy. This facility generates approximately 13 megawatts of energy annually.
- Sunbrella produces indoor and outdoor upholstery. Their take-back program, Recycle My Sunbrella, allows domestic consumers to send in fabric scraps, awning covers, boat covers, and upholstery fabric to be recycled. Since its inception, the program has collected nearly one million pounds of fabric.
Incorporating Behavioral Science
The users themselves are another important factor that can determine the effectiveness of take-back programs. Consumer or user behavior is being recognized more and more as one of the biggest sources of overall environmental impact of a product. And in order for these programs to actually work, manufacturers must receive their products after users have finished with them. This involves, at the design stage, developing features that will remind consumers about resource use and encourage better use and maintenance habits.
This is also a job for a company’s marketing team. Providing incentives such as buy-back programs and communicating clearly in product literature and on websites is crucial so that consumers are aware of these end-of-life options and motivated to take advantage of them. For example, an eco-choice strategy encourages consumers to make responsible decisions by giving them options that they can feel good about. Some companies remind users of end-of-life options and share data with them about the positive impacts of returning materials and products.
Take-Back Programs and Circularity
While take-back programs can be great, implementing one does not mean that a company has “achieved circularity.” They are just a single piece within a larger system. To learn more about the circular economy, the articles on some of the ideas that informed our current understanding of this system, and some of the other principles of circularity.