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The COVID-19 recovery requires a resilient circular economy Jocelyn Bleriot Fri, 05/29/2020 - 01:00

The COVID-19 crisis has disastrous human and economic consequences, revealing our system’s exposure to a variety of risks. The call for a more resilient, circular and low-carbon economic model has garnered support from a growing number of businesses and governments over the past few years, and appears today more relevant than ever. Identifying opportunities, keeping a clear sense of direction and fostering a strong public-private collaboration will help usher in redefined growth towards the next wave of prosperity.

As the pandemic forces us to adapt our daily lives in ways we would not have imagined, it also challenges us to rethink the systems that underpin the economy. While there is no question that addressing public health consequences is the priority, the nature of the equally crucial economic recovery effort raises some interrogations. Should stimulus packages focus on finding the way back to growth by kicking business as usual into overdrive, or could they accelerate the shift that has already started towards a more resilient, low-carbon circular economy?

One way to tackle this polarizing question is to reject the idea that rapidly getting back to economic dynamism is incompatible with a wider system transition. Given the sums at play and the unprecedented — in peace times — rise in prominence of public authorities, this isn’t a simple equation to resolve, yet there are signs of agreement on the horizon. While the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has declared it will devote its entire activities to addressing the economic impact of the pandemic, the Investor Agenda group, which collectively manages trillions of dollars in assets, said that "Governments should avoid the prioritization of risky, short-term emissions-intensive projects."

As witnessed in countries severely hit by the virus, being able to quickly adapt industrial facilities and shift production — of automotive to medical equipment parts, for example — has been crucial.

The recovery effort will, of course, require a variety of strategies. Looking at the pre-COVID-19 landscape, it is clear that momentum already had been increasing around the need for a system reset, with a visible consensus on the potential of a circular model. Over the course of the last decade, a number of leading businesses have stepped onto and invested in this transformative path, while pioneering institutions and government bodies put forward significant legislative proposals to enable the transition. This is notably true in the European Union and in China but it plays out in other regions as well, at national and municipal levels with the same degree of vitality.

Far from pushing that agenda to the bottom of the list, the current crisis makes the circular economy more relevant than ever, as it holds a significant number of economically attractive answers. The early stages of the COVID-19 crisis have revealed the brittleness of many global supply chains, not limited to but illustrated by medical equipment availability issues, for example. In this specific case, circular principles provide credible solutions: design and product policy factors such as repairability, reusability and potential for remanufacturing offer considerable opportunities in resilience (stock availability) and competitiveness.

It is notably telling that the global refurbished medical devices market is expected to grow by over 10 percent a year between 2020 and 2025, which represents market opportunities as well as increased asset use rates (therefore less reliance on new raw materials). The importance of these strategies notably have been highlighted in the U.S., where several state treasurers have urged ventilator makers to make service manuals and repair-related resources available to help hospitals deal with the crisis. This has cost reduction implications which will appeal to cash-strapped public health authorities, but is also conducive to lowering the greenhouse gas footprint, as remanufacturing has been shown by the United Nations’ International Resource Panel to reduce emissions by over 80 percent in key sectors. As witnessed in countries severely hit by the virus, being able to quickly adapt industrial facilities and shift production — of automotive to medical equipment parts, for example — has been crucial. Factoring in that flexibility upstream — by designing both tooling and products to be repurposable and versatile — could be a way to enhance value-creation potential and achieve greater resilience of industry, both valuable beyond the current situation.

Another domain in which circular economy appears particularly relevant is the highly sensitive area of food production and distribution. It is well documented that the current industrial agricultural model yields outputs of questionable quality, relies on fossil fuels and practices that are damaging to ecosystems, and is built around supply chains that involve long-distance transport that make it vulnerable to border closures. The dependency on seasonal foreign workforces servicing industrial scale production centers is also problematic in that regard, and farmers across Europe already have warned they probably will need to forget about this year’s crop season due to labor shortages. In certain cities, hastily implemented lockdowns have stressed food supply and emphasized the need for shorter producer-to-consumer models, which have seen a sudden rise in uptake (French). It therefore appears timely to further explore the potential of large-scale investment in regenerative, peri-urban production, together with digitally enabled precision agriculture. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s research has highlighted, a circular scenario could lead to a 50 percent reduction of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer use by 2030 in Europe (compared to 2012 levels), while resulting in a 12 percent drop in household expenditure and better products. Finally, regenerative agriculture is also a powerful force in the climate crisis mitigation arsenal, as circular economy strategies could reduce emissions by 5.6 billion tonnes CO2e, corresponding to a 49 percent reduction in the projected 2050 total food system emissions.

As we gradually get a better understanding of the economic ramifications of the pandemic, the ways in which a circular model can contribute to the recovery will be more detailed, and implementation plans more defined.

These two specific examples only constitute a small opening onto the wider possibilities presented by the circular economy when it comes to recovery plans, and there are many areas to explore: think for instance of the staggering amount of office space overcapacity, and what modular design and use patterns could achieve in terms of reduced materials and energy consumption. As governments are looking for ways to move forward, they can do so without straying from their low-carbon commitments by implementing circular economy strategies — this rings true in the construction sector, for example, as building renovation quickly imposed itself as an obvious immediate win, combining a de facto local activity boost with a necessary efficiency upgrade.

At the municipal level, some COVID-19 specific measures already have been taken around mobility and transport. Brussels, for example, has given more space to pedestrians and cyclists and has limited the speed of motor vehicles to 12.4 mph across the city. While this does not necessarily illustrate a circular development strategy per se, it shows that the need for change is acted on by policymakers, who quickly create the right conditions for new systems to emerge. In such a dynamic context, circular economy solutions can find the space to become mainstream, as the inherent wastefulness of the current model is highlighted. To stick with mobility, even before business as usual was challenged, private vehicles in Europe were sat idle 92 percent of the time. It's therefore not a stretch of the imagination to think that designing cities for alternative urban transport solutions and better use of urban public space will become key priorities.

As we gradually get a better understanding of the economic ramifications of the pandemic, the ways in which a circular model can contribute to the recovery will be more detailed, and implementation plans more defined. Short-term answers already are available, such as the ones highlighted above for food systems or decentralized production, yet it is fundamental to recognize that the effort will need to be sustained, and that its success will rely on the involvement of all stakeholders, working in a logic of co-creation. As governments step up to address the most pressing issues, setting a clear direction and enabling private sector circular innovation to reach scale will allow us to combine economic regeneration, better societal outcomes and climate ambitions.

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As witnessed in countries severely hit by the virus, being able to quickly adapt industrial facilities and shift production — of automotive to medical equipment parts, for example — has been crucial.
As we gradually get a better understanding of the economic ramifications of the pandemic, the ways in which a circular model can contribute to the recovery will be more detailed, and implementation plans more defined.
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Author: Jocelyn Bleriot
Posted: May 29, 2020, 8:00 am
How the Navajo got their day in the sun Danny Kennedy Thu, 05/28/2020 - 02:00

In late March, during the early hours of the COVID-19 crisis, just as New Yorkers were realizing how many might die, a small solar development company closed a $4 million financing deal. "Closing" is never easy, but getting a half-dozen high-net-worth individuals, family offices and foundations to pony up as the world’s finance markets crashed around them was a triumph. 

Getting the deal done was impressive in its own right, given that private equity had all but frozen in the weeks before and most venture-backed startups were running on fumes, telling their angel investors and anyone who’d listen that they had three months’ financial runway, or less. It seems even more important now, given the terrible toll COVID-19 is having right where the solar is planned: the Navajo Nation.

A young team saddled with ambition and support from their tribal government, this largely native-owned company, Navajo Power, was getting ready to build a major solar project in one of the poorest communities in America. 

"We are working hard to create jobs and build resilient infrastructure for our Nation and for the greater western region," explained Brett Isaac, founder and CEO.

"Navajo has perhaps the highest unemployment in the country at 65 percent — that’s pre-COVID. It is clearly going up, due to the virus. We need to put people back to work in creating the clean energy future. Developing some of the biggest projects in the world and maximizing the benefits for our communities can provide the resources needed to fund a wave of local infrastructure and community economic development initiatives. Clean energy can be our bridge."

A company to watch, and learn from

Navajo Power was co-founded by Isaac and his old friend Dan Rosen, a college dropout from New Jersey. Rosen was adopted by Navajo artist Shonto Begay in his teens and went on to start one of the U.S.’s largest solar loan business, Mosaic. These two and their partners are leading the charge for the Navajo Nation’s just transition, from coal dependence to clean energy superpower.

This movement one day will be studied in colleges around the world; justice can be done.

Such drama around Navajo is justified. This is the largest indigenous community in the United States, with 250,000 people and a land base the size of West Virginia. There is a sordid history of "divide and conquer," involving everyone from Kit Carson to the Sierra Club. The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal. Mined and burned to provide power for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix. 

The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal.

Despite hosting centuries of extraction and decades of power generation, in 2020, more than 15,000 families on Navajo land lack electricity or running water. And surprise, surprise: the local community saw only a pittance for the years that King Coal ravaged its ancestral homeland.

According to one local leader of the governing "chapter" responsible for running services, his entire community of 1,200 people received about $250,000 per year in royalties from the coal mining operation on their land. This community spent 50 years suffering from the toxic emissions spewing out of the coal-burning 1.2 gigawatt Navajo Generating Station nearby. This plant powered Los Angeles and points west — but not their own towns and settlements.

All they got was the pollution, and almost enough money to pay for the salary of one public health worker and overhead. An utter disgrace.

By contrast, Navajo Power’s solar projects will pay millions of dollars upfront and fair market value per year for the life of the project, while ensuring that the local community is compensated in addition to the central government. The solar plant will sit on the ground, leave resources in the ground, burn nothing and can be removed afterwards. The chapter can invest the revenue generated by this plant in public health, workforce development, job creation efforts such as ecotourism and high-value agriculture.

Business unusual

Solar is a strategy that will uplift this community. But unlike the similar promise of coal, solar power will not desecrate the Navajo’s sacred land, pollute their skies or poison their children. And the Navajo Power deal ensures this power will be owned and controlled by Navajo, not outsiders. 

It was not only a coup to pull off any investment of this magnitude in the midst of the COVID crisis — there’s more business unusual in the deal. Baked into the financial structure is an expected rate of return for the investors. If and when this rate is achieved, any further returns will be distributed to the communities hosting the solar projects on their land. This financing design, with a "mission delta" built-in between the concessionary rate that investors are taking and a more market rate, will become an innovative benchmark for similarly well-intentioned companies in the future.

Additional covenants include 10 percent of company ownership being held in a Turquoise Share, which funds community benefits in the event of profit distributions or sale of the company. Eighty percent of the profits must go toward solar projects or community investments. And executive compensation is capped relative to the lowest-paid employee. 

Morgan Simon, CEO of the Candide Group, explained, "Navajo Power is creating a new kind of economic development model for communities through leveraging the revenues of utility-scale clean energy development. That’s what drew us to their work and why we led this investment." This model is a stark contrast to the hundreds of years of exploitative fossil-fuel ventures that have taken place on the territories of native peoples. 

Navajo Power, as you probably can tell, is not a typical company. It is a registered Public Benefit Corporation; a company with a core goal of public benefits on par with profit maximization. And for the power sector, it is innovative from woe to go. It is mostly owned by Navajo and committed, by its mission and business model, to maximize benefits for the community partners hosting the solar projects on their land. The company provides culturally appropriate technical assistance to communities as they go through the development process. 

The backstory

The political and historical context surrounding this momentous deal is worth understanding. During Donald Trump’s reign, U.S. coal plants have closed faster than during the Obama administration. We can thank the markets for coal’s loss of steam; wind in the Midwest and solar in the Southwest can produce cheaper electricity.

This phenomenon has reached the reservation. After decades of hosting some of the nation’s largest coal mines and coal-fired power plants, including the Navajo Generating Station, San Juan, Cholla and the Four Corners Plant, these plants are finished.

The first to fall, Navajo Generating Station, closed in November after a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to "save it" with subsidies. Early this year, the San Juan plant on the New Mexico side of Navajo announced it will shutter within three years. Cholla will stop one of three units this year and the rest by 2025. And Arizona Public Service, which operates Four Corners, recently announced it is moving up the retirement of that facility to 2031. Given the increasing loss-making economics, my bet is 2031 is a longshot.

The Navajo entrepreneurs saw the vacuum left by falling coal plants as an opportunity for themselves, their reservation and the broader United States. The key insight is that the coal operations built on their land give the Navajo exceptional access to regional energy markets through the high-voltage transmission lines connecting them to major electrical demand centers across the West. 

Based on research, Navajo Nation has the potential for more than 10 GW of solar power — more than a one-to-one replacement for every lost megawatt of coal power — plus at least one gigawatt of wind. Their high altitude, blue skies and dry land base is ideal for hosting solar farms. It also could prove an ideal location for hosting long-duration batteries for grid services that provide reliability and resilience. Research and development on solutions such as hydrogen gas from electrolysis powered by inexpensive solar is another potential product of this endeavor.

The Navajo are riding the perfect storm: better economics; natural and unnatural competitive advantages; and the disruption of energy technologies to position this previously overlooked community at the center of the U.S. energy future.

A change of heart

In March 2019, Navajo Power organized an Energy Roundtable that involved Navajo leadership and some big hitters in energy from the American West. These included David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, and Angelina Galiteva, a member of the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the California electricity grid.

California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. So, when the governor’s energy czar and manager of the grid were present at the roundtable, people listened. And they both had the same message: We won’t buy dirty power from Navajo.

The previous year, California passed SB100, a law that requires the Golden State to be 100 percent powered with renewable electricity by 2045. California is a huge market, a kind of nation-state unto itself, with a distinct grid and an increasingly wealthy population of 40 million. When California adopted the 100 percent standard, other states followed suit.

This included New Mexico, which has a long history with the neighboring Navajo Nation dating to colonial times. These energy players surrounded the nation — both figuratively and geographically — with 100 percent clean energy commitments.

The conversation at the roundtable was focused on how none of these states wanted to buy coal-fired power for much longer. After 50 years of being forced by various means to allow coal extraction and combustion on its territory, the Navajo leadership was told that the world is going in a new direction. For the Resource Committee that was gathered, including Vice President Myron Lizer, this was news.

But it was heard. It was hard to ignore Navajo’s biggest customer of coal power for last half century saying, "We won’t be allowed, by law, to buy it any longer." 

Showdown at the summit

Galiteva had run procurement for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power earlier in her career, so she knew all about contracting with Navajo power producers. She was well-versed on the transmission systems that carried electricity across the high desert and Sierras into the L.A. basin. There’s an interconnect at Glendale, just east of the city, a point in the grid where high-voltage transmission cables connect and the juice from big power plants is broken up before being distributed through the massive urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. Galiteva agreed that Navajo could take advantage of that transmission capacity — a huge multibillion-dollar sunk cost — to sell solar power for the next century.

The Navajo’s competitive advantage of using transmission lines paid for by the coal industry to connect clean energy generation on their land to the big cities might be fleeting.

Other carrots were offered in the room for the Navajo leadership to consider shifting from coal to solar. One came in the form of an energy procurement manager from Apple; the most valuable company in history at that time that recently had committed to 100 percent clean energy. While he could not commit to a specific contract with Navajo on the company’s behalf, he did indicate Apple’s interest in new sources of clean power.

In the last few years, data centers such as those run by Apple, Google and Facebook have emerged as core business for energy generators with direct electricity contracts. If the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a group of several dozen large corporations, were a country, it would be in the top 10 in terms of energy consumption and commitment to 100 percent clean energy purchasing. The signal was clear for the folks in the room — the times were a-changing and the Navajo needed to get with the program.

The Navajo’s competitive advantage of using transmission lines paid for by the coal industry to connect clean energy generation on their land to the big cities might be fleeting. Developers elsewhere across the West are proposing massive wind and solar farms with transmission. These were big decisions and directional choices proposed to the committee at the summit.

None of which had an easy solution because, at the same time the summit was happening, on the Arizona side of the reservation, lobbyists in Window Rock were trying to convince the president to use sovereign wealth funds to bail out the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. The owners and major off-takers had proposed to shut it down that summer, which would mean hundreds of jobs going off the reservation — a place with few good, consistent employment opportunities. 

At the time of the Navajo Power Summit, the nation was under considerable pressure to buy out the owners of the Navajo Generating Station to keep it going — even if It meant funding a loss-making enterprise. Various excuses and initiatives were announced to justify the nation's digging into a hard-won, rainy-day fund it maintains from fines settled by the federal government for damage caused by uranium mine tailings on their land.

The new president, Jonathan Nez, elected in November 2018, was looking down the barrel of 700 jobs going away at NGS and seriously considered spending $300 million to keep the coal power plant running. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis advised Nez that this may keep the plant going for a couple of years, but nothing could turn the tide against coal in the West with all neighboring states committing to 100 percent renewables in the foreseeable future. In other words, it would be buying a white elephant.

In an act of bold political leadership, Nez decided against bailing out the coal plant. The nation broadened its vision. It saw that building large-scale solar farms with companies such as Navajo Power would tap the existing transmission lines to big cities and address the thousands of families on the reservation who do not have electricity.

In a proclamation made in April 2019, called the Navajo Háyoołkááł , the parties created "a new economic vision for the Navajo People, through healing the land, fostering clean energy development and providing leadership for the energy market."

This is "a big move for the nation," said Nez.

The plan is based on four principles: 

1. A diverse energy portfolio, creating workforce development and job creation opportunities for the Navajo people. 

2. Restoration of land and water after decades of uranium and coal mining. 

3. Rural electrification of homes that lack access to electricity.

4. Utility-scale renewable energy development to supply Navajo Nation and the western United States. 

The Navajo Sunrise Proclamation says, "Through the Diné teaching of ‘T’áá hwó’ ajít’éego’ and for the many who have called upon our Nation’s leaders to transition away from our overdependence on fossil fuels, the Navajo Nation will strive for a balanced energy portfolio and will pursue and prioritize clean renewable energy development for the long-term benefit of the Navajo People and our communities."

The benefits of such investments will go beyond jobs and revenue for the Navajo. There is a sense of pride in picking the path rather than having it foisted upon them, as coal power was 50 years ago. Self-determination is a big issue for indigenous peoples the world over. Overcoming the colonial domination that energy development has created is a major triumphsof the Navajo Sunrise Proclamation.

It brings hope, not just to this sovereign nation, but to people everywhere that just transitions can be made.

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The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal.
The Navajo’s competitive advantage of using transmission lines paid for by the coal industry to connect clean energy generation on their land to the big cities might be fleeting.
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Using waste carbon feedstocks to produce chemicals Elizabeth R. Nesbitt Wed, 05/27/2020 - 14:36

Emerging carbon capture utilization (CCU) technologies potentially allow chemical companies and other manufacturers such as steel companies to convert waste carbon from industrial emissions — in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) and/or carbon dioxide (CO2) — into sustainable, value-added biofuels and chemicals. Using CCU technologies to consume waste feedstocks reportedly can cut production costs; monetize industrial emissions; allow companies to meet CO2 emissions goals; and foster continued development of a circular economy.

Moreover, using waste carbon to make chemicals also can reduce manufacturers’ reliance on fossil fuels such as crude petroleum and natural gas, an important factor, particularly for the European Union and China, given the volatility in sourcing and pricing of fossil fuels.

Factors driving adoption

Technology providers such as LanzaTech (United States) and Avantium (Netherlands), among others, have developed novel CCU processes. The new processes, which reflect scientific advancements in industrial biotechnology and electrolysis, range from fermentation (using proprietary microorganisms) to electrocatalysis and are at varying stages of development (research scale to full commercialization).

The extent to which new CCU technologies become commercially successful is based on multiple factors, including proximity of the consuming entity to the source of the waste carbon, and production and energy costs (including the availability and costs of renewable energy; companies predict that increased supplies of low-cost renewable energy will be needed). Government policies also play an important role in the evolving expansion of CCU projects.

The extent to which new CCU technologies become commercially successful is based on multiple factors, including proximity of the consuming entity to the source of the waste carbon...

Stakeholders and business models

Large multinational chemical companies and steel companies are participating in CCU projects (a list showing examples of such projects is provided in the working paper). Industry sources note that the new production capacity is generally in the form of modular "bolt-on" units that can be added to existing production facilities — such as steel plants, chemical plants, and refineries — that are major sources of CO/CO2 emissions.

LanzaTech, one of the first companies to start commercial production of bioethanol using waste emissions, notes that steel mills worldwide produce about 30 billion gallons of waste gas per year and says its process can be used on about 65 percent of global steel mills, potentially producing 30 billion gallons of ethanol annually. The business models used along the value chain vary.

Industry sources note that whereas the technology providers likely will license their technologies, the industrial emitters (such as steel companies) likely will use licensing and establish joint ventures (JVs) with the consuming/marketing entities.

Many CCU projects underway to date are in China and Europe. Industry sources cite several reasons for this geographical concentration, including the magnitude of available waste emissions; industrial efforts to reduce emissions to meet national targets; funding; and government policies. One source, speaking of the European chemical industry, notes that CCU would allow the industry to both reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and enhance its competitiveness. Another source states that European leadership in development and deployment of clean-energy technologies translates to a global competitive advantage.

But the speed of U.S. adoption of such technology may be tempered by several factors, including the relative cost of fossil fuels in the United States.

The outlook

Using waste carbon from industrial emissions as a feedstock for chemical manufacture appears to be a viable complement to industrial emitters’ ongoing abatement efforts. Many things are in flux: technologies are still being developed and scaled up; government policies are being implemented; business models are being established; funding is still being sought; the costs of installing the new technologies; and the supply and pricing of fossil fuels remain volatile.

But steel companies, refineries and chemical companies are increasingly starting to use waste carbon emissions as feedstocks for chemicals and there are significant supplies of waste carbon from global industrial emissions worldwide for companies to use.

These CCU technologies are promoting a paradigm shift that has the potential to increase firm-level competitiveness for manufacturers that adopt these processes, while also reducing the environmental impact of these manufacturers.

On a sectoral basis, some sources estimate that the market potential for chemical production from waste carbon in industrial emissions, or even reduction of waste emissions in general, could be valued in the billions of dollars.

Moreover, given estimates of potential reductions in production costs of about 20 to 50 percent (largely resulting from the feedstocks), chemical producers appear to be able to derive a competitive advantage regarding the pricing of many end products and, to the extent that they are partners in JVs with industrial emitters, they also may be able to increase market share and/or market coverage. Use of waste carbon feedstocks is also likely to allow companies to respond to carbon pricing programs and renewable energy mandates.

Steel companies that can gain revenues from byproduct sales derived from their industrial emissions and offset emissions taxes and/or reduce other obligations under new mandates may be able to avoid reducing production in an increasingly competitive and oversupplied global market for steel with thin profit margins. Steel industries that adopt these sustainable technologies might be able to better survive oversupply conditions, carbon pricing programs, and renewable energy mandates than those that do not.

These CCU technologies are promoting a paradigm shift that has the potential to increase firm-level competitiveness for manufacturers that adopt these processes, while also reducing the environmental impact of these manufacturers. To the extent that these technologies become widely adopted, they could result in substantial increases in supply of such chemicals globally, with potential disruptive impacts on trade and prices.

Disclaimer: Office of Industries working papers are the result of the ongoing professional research of USITC staff and solely represent the opinions and professional research of individual authors. This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. International Trade Commission or any of its individual commissioners.

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The extent to which new CCU technologies become commercially successful is based on multiple factors, including proximity of the consuming entity to the source of the waste carbon...
These CCU technologies are promoting a paradigm shift that has the potential to increase firm-level competitiveness for manufacturers that adopt these processes, while also reducing the environmental impact of these manufacturers.
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How Dell and Levi's envision the future of repair Elsa Wenzel Wed, 05/27/2020 - 02:00

Doing away with a culture of disposability is one of the big dreams of the circular economy. A jolt in this direction came overnight as COVID-19 drove people indoors, forcing many to rethink how they reduce, reuse or recycle items they took for granted only weeks earlier.

As U.S. unemployment claims soared to 30 million, buying non-essentials became an act of either audacity or foolishness. Even window shopping has been confined to a web browser. People have been making every can of beans and square of toilet paper last.

"Like it or not, the coronavirus is changing the rules of consumption," said GreenBiz Editorial Director Heather Clancy during the Circularity Digital virtual event last week. "Millions of consumers are putting off retail purchases and looking at the stuff in their closets and cabinets and desktops in a very different way. Why should this item be thrown away when it could be repaired or refreshed and for that matter, how long should I expect these things to last?"

However, most brands are in the business of selling something new, so circular economy efforts generally have tended to put repair at the bottom of the menu.

Will this pandemic create a lasting change in priorities for business and end users alike?

There's no surefire answer for now, but some of the people thinking the hardest about what all of this means are those who work in product design. Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., works hands-on with denim, zippers and buttons. Being stuck at home lately has been tough.

There’s got to be a better design solution to address end of life, how [products] can easily be refurbished, upcycled and disassembled.

"It’s called on all of my home [economics] skills, all of my ability to prototype and ideate using just the materials around my house, which has been a really exciting exercise," Dillinger said. "It has challenged me to remember a lot of the skill set we don’t often call upon to make from nothing, to repair the broken things around us."

Embracing imperfections and repairs is part of his vision for a pair of jeans to be loved and worn for a decade until ultimately being recycled. Levi’s heritage, after all, began with durable canvas work pants worn by miners around the California gold rush.

Paul Dillinger, Levi's, showing the materials in a 100-percent-cotton pair of jeans.

"Everyone's favorite jean has a repair in it, a stain they don’t mind," he said. "That mustard was a great ballgame. The story of our lives [is] written in our jeans. People will resonate with that far more than with a disposable, unrepairable, unresolvable product."

With that mindset, Dillinger led the design of Levi’s innovative Wellthread shirts, jackets and jeans, which launched in 2015. The company rebuilt blue jeans for recyclability, also slashing the use of water and being mindful of workers' well-being.

A Wellthread denim jacket in the line, for example, uses four technologies to incorporate recovered, chemically recycled and mechanically recycled cotton in the buttons, exterior denim and lining. The end result is 100 percent cellulosic material, the type of single, "clean" input that’s easiest for a recycling system to handle, which is why simple glass bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers have such a long recycling track record. Wellthread jeans contrast with others that are labeled as cotton but actually use blended materials, including polyester, throughout.

If it were up to Dillinger, the industry would be a blank page for design. But reality has a lot of stuff in it already — most of it barely used or valued. Six out of 10 garments are incinerated within a year of production, according to McKinsey research. That means important and scarce natural resources are ruthlessly consumed and discarded, like the more than 3,700 liters of water needed to produce a pair of jeans.

It feels like we’ve moved to this throwaway society. I hope we’re moving in the other direction.

Fast fashion and high-performance fabrics have compounded waste by accelerating the output of apparel that's virtually impossible to recycle. Take, for example, a blend of wool, viscose, polyamide and cashmere in a scarf or sweater. "You would need a solvent for one, a mechanical process for another, heat for another," Dillinger said.

The problem is shared across industries, including in electronics, which make up the world's fastest-growing waste stream. Only 20 percent of e-waste is recycled, according to a United Nations University report in 2017. The fate of the rest is mostly unknown, probably either landfilled, reused or recycled informally.

For Ed Boyd, an inside look at a recycling plant was a wake-up call. The senior vice president of Dell’s Experience Design Group recently visited a new Wistron electronics recycling plant in Dallas, one of the largest in North America. A typical notebook computer includes more than 200 ingredients, only a handful of which can be processed by such a facility. The rest get separated and sent around the planet for handling.

"I’ve been involved in recycling materials for a long time, but seeing it firsthand in that kind of environment was kind of daunting," Boyd said. "I was looking at this through a designer’s eyes thinking, I’ve kind of created this problem. There’s got to be a better design solution to address end of life, how [products] can easily be refurbished, upcycled and disassembled. And that has kicked off a lot of exciting work at Dell really aiming at changing that."

Over the past few years, Dell already has been getting more questions from customers about environmental impacts, reflecting a dramatic shift in sentiment that’s pushing electronics makers to rethink their approaches, Boyd said.

Dell’s "moonshot goals" for 2030 include three things: for an equivalent product to be reused or recycled for every item bought by a customer; for recycled or renewable materials to make up all its packaging; and for more than half of the materials in its products to be made of recycled or renewable materials.

A view from iFixit of the innards of a Dell laptop.

Dell already has plucked some of the low-hanging fruit of closed-loop materials, such as by using reclaimed ocean plastics. In 2011, it introduced the use of mushroom-based cushioning to ship servers. Boyd said the PC maker is exploring with its suppliers how to rethink core product components responsibly, including battery cells, motherboards and displays. It's also considering biopolymers to prevent waste and solar-powered smelting to reduce manufacturing footprints. And Boyd wants Dell to innovate by creating products that can be assembled and later disassembled quickly, extending life cycles by enabling repeated cycles of reuse or upcycling.

That's been the objective for DIY advocates such as Kyle Wiens, at the forefront of the right to repair movement for more than 15 years. The CEO and co-founder of the iFixit repair website, famous for ticking off Apple, pointed out how the 30 or so metals inside a given cell phone have a low recovery rate, making product reuse more efficient than recycling at this time.

"It feels like we’ve moved to this throwaway society," Wiens said. "I hope we’re moving in the other direction."

iFixit helps 100 million people a year fix things, including one in every five Californians, Wiens said. The company sees eight figures in annual sales of toolkits, switches, spark plugs and other parts, but its repairs database is free. It offers nearly 63,000 crowdsourced manuals and advice for an amazing assortment of products, including cars, garden hoses, jacket zippers and PCs. Some 70,000 people have accessed iFixIt’s instructions for repairing a countertop Starbucks Barista machine.

iFixIt also rates products for their accessibility to fixers. A Dell Inspiron laptop that can be opened with a Phillips screwdriver got a 10 out of 10 score, while a Microsoft Surface that needed to be cut open received a score of three. (An upgrade later earned that model's successor two more points.)

Wiens is excited that iFixit is diving into on-demand 3D printing, starting with a component it sells for a coffee maker. He said he’d like to collaborate with companies to create products designed from the outset with components that can be printed in case of a breakdown. "We really think it needs to be a partnership between the repair community and the manufacturer to make it work," he said.

The story of our lives [is] written in our jeans. People will resonate with that far more than with a disposable, unrepairable, unresolvable product.

Since the pandemic hemmed most of society into their homes, iFixit has seen a spike in searches for fixing devices, laptops and the Nintendo Switch. Last week, it dove into new territory and activism by publishing 13,000 manuals for medical devices, everything from hospital bed headboards to nebulizers to scales, becoming the world’s largest source of details for medical repairs. The company is hoping this ambitious effort will lighten the workloads of the exhausted biomedical technicians who keep hospital equipment humming and beeping.

For better or worse, most appliances rely on human muscle and brainpower for longevity. But information technology is beginning to change some of this. 

Boyd is intrigued by the possibility of "self-healing" electronics that reconstitute or repair themselves, made possible by artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI already helps predict when a laptop battery will fail.

Also further out, and in Dell’s planning stages, is how to augment and design equipment that improves over the course of a decade or two. Product-as-a-service models could become part of an industry transformation, he said, eliminating the need for companies to keep up revenues by releasing whole new lines of modestly updated electronics every year.

"We’re having an interesting moment in technology right now, with the birth of 5G and strong cloud connectivity — we can make products in the future that don't degrade; they actually get better," Boyd said.

Dillinger, on the other hand, wants to remind people to "get a little analog" and take a stab at sewing a button. iFixit has directions for that, too.

Pull Quote
There’s got to be a better design solution to address end of life, how [products] can easily be refurbished, upcycled and disassembled.
It feels like we’ve moved to this throwaway society. I hope we’re moving in the other direction.
The story of our lives [is] written in our jeans. People will resonate with that far more than with a disposable, unrepairable, unresolvable product.
Consumer Electronics Circularity 20
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Automation is only part of the picture.

Author: Elsa Wenzel
Posted: May 27, 2020, 9:00 am
Advice for thriving amid crisis, from 14 sustainability vets Kathrin Winkler Tue, 05/26/2020 - 08:00

A few months back (and forever ago), our professional colleagues in our Sustainability Veterans group expressed their thoughts on the most important attributes for advancing a sustainability career. Our goal was to share lessons that we learned in the trenches to help those following us to build on our experiences.

But we never experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic.

As unprecedented as these times are, and as uncertain as the near future may be, some past events offer small but important parallels that could yield tools and ideas for how to proceed.

In your career, was there a crisis in which you learned something useful to pass on to those dealing with the current and unfolding situation created by COVID?

To that end, we asked our vets to offer a succinct response to: "In your career, was there a crisis (such as the Great Recession or other major disruption) in which you learned something useful to pass on to those dealing with the current and unfolding situation created by COVID?"

The answers are varied and disparate — and, in some cases, even contradictory. Together, they remind us that there is no one universal answer, that companies and cultures differ, and that while we may see echoes of the past in our world today, we are traversing entirely new territory, compass in hand, but without a map.

About the Sustainability Veterans: We are a group of professionals who have had leadership roles in the world of corporate sustainability. We are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to help the next generation of sustainability leaders achieve success.

Here’s what they had to say:

Dawn Rittenhouse

Observe to solve: On Sept. 11, I was in Malaysia watching events unfold from half a world away. I learned to take a step back, watch and then figure out where to have the biggest impact. We are still in crisis mode. Take time to be observant before deciding on how sustainability can be a solution. 

— Dawn Rittenhouse was director of sustainable development for DuPont from 1998 until 2019.

Mark Buckley

Up Is down: My favorite crisis example is Apollo 13. In my experience, successful crisis management forces organizations to see externalities and ecosystems which have not always been self-evident. "Normal" isn’t "normal," "up" is "down" and crisis unleashes untapped human capital, innovation, creativity and laser-focus on what can be done versus what cannot.

— Mark Buckley is founder of One Boat Collaborative and former vice president of sustainability at Staples.

Cecily Joseph

Shifting focus: During times of crisis we get a glimpse of the next emerging issue and how companies can impact for the long term. Following the financial crisis, we focused on more corporate transparency and accountability. Today, we have the opportunity to advocate for equity — in healthcare and access to resources.

— Cecily Joseph is former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec. She serves as chair of the Net Impact board of directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School.

Bill Weihl

Take the long view and put people first. Recognize that we are all part of an interdependent global community. Both are vital for dealing with the immediate crisis, and for ongoing and future crises.


— Bill Weihl was Google’s Green Energy Czar, leading climate and clean energy work, then spent six years at Facebook as director of sustainability. In 2020, he founded ClimateVoice.

Paul Murray

The calm voice: With all the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 virus, sustainability managers should strive to be the calm voice of reason for the company. Help your company understand that how they respond to people in this time of crisis must continue to balance the people, planet and profit equation of sustainability.

— Paul Murray, president of Integrated Sustainable Strategies, is retired vice president of sustainability at Shaw Industries and previously director of sustainability at Herman Miller.

Sarah Severn

Follow the counterintuitive: Crises remind us that systems are complex, interconnected and difficult to "fix," and yet there are leverage points which have disproportionate ability to move the system in the right direction. Unfortunately, because they are counterintuitive we almost always push on them the wrong way. In your rush to solve whatever problems COVID-19 has created for you, investing time and effort in a systems-thinking approach will always improve the outcome.

— Sarah Severn is principal of Severn Consulting. She spent over two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike, leading strategy, stakeholder engagement and championing systems thinking and collaborative change.

Ellen Weinreb

A silver lining: For those of us working in corporate sustainability, one silver lining is that we’re comfortable with complexity and change, and our modus operandi is to plan for the long term.


— Ellen Weinreb is a sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder Sustainability Veterans.

Bob Langert

Jump in: In a crisis, I always believed that our team should jump in big-time, especially if what’s happening is related to a social/environmental predicament. For example, in the early 2000s, my McDonald's team got very involved in the obesity problem. I never thought I’d be spending 75 percent of my time for a few years on this, which also means you don’t work on other efforts that are important.

— Bob Langert is retired vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s Corporation and editor at large for GreenBiz.

Trisa Thompson

The rest will follow: We were in the law library at Dell, watching the horror of the World Trade Center exploding with a plane. The room was full, but stunningly silent. However, within minutes, we had all hands on deck, locating our team members and confirming their safety. People came first, above all. As they should, and do, now. Take care of your teams, your family and those you love. Help others less fortunate. The rest will follow.

— Trisa Thompson is a lawyer and former Dell Technologies chief responsibility officer.

Jacqueline Drumheller

Volunteer and dig in: I learned an important lesson after the anguishing loss of Alaska Flight 261. Even if it’s not part of your normal job function, look for volunteer opportunities to dig in and help. Your day job is going to be there for you when you are finished. By helping others, you will help yourself deal with grief and anxiety, and the deep (and new) relationships forged with fellow volunteers will never be forgotten.

— Jacqueline Drumheller evolved her career in corporate environmental compliance to a role launching and spearheading Alaska Airlines’ formal sustainability program.

Mark Spears

Stop. Look. Listen. A moment (or extended period) of crisis requires a deep breath, an assessment of impact and understanding of implication across the full stakeholder spectrum. One can’t always control the initial damage, but can manage emotions, actions and the example set for others to follow in charting the course necessary for recovery.

— Mark Spears retired from The Walt Disney Company after nearly 30 years, spanning a series of finance, strategic planning and sustainability roles. He serves as founder and chief strategist at common+value, a sustainability consultancy.

Jim Thomas

Go overboard: In 1986, I was working for Sandoz when we had the big warehouse fire in Switzerland that contaminated the Rhine River. We responded by coming up with the most stringent warehousing guidelines in the world; previously warehousing was viewed as a low-risk activity. The lesson learned was that we went overboard with our standards because we were under strict orders to make sure we never had another such incident.

— Jim Thomas has led sustainability programs at Novartis, Gerber, JCPenney and Petco.

Kathrin Winkler

Tone down the celebration: Though the scale differs, in 2008 people were losing their jobs and afraid for their futures. One of the best tools in our toolbox had always been the celebration of success, but we learned that it was not the time for self-congratulation. Rather, we needed to focus on listening, empathy and building personal, community and business resilience.

— Kathrin Winkler is former chief sustainability officer for EMC Corporation, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor at large for GreenBiz.

Bart Alexander

Immediate vs. restorative: The 2008 financial crisis sparked hopes of a fundamental shift from short-term profits to longer-term values. As the economic downturn persisted, financially stressed companies and consumers made decisions more on value — what they could afford — than values. There is a lesson for we who hope for a different future coming from the COVID-19 crisis. We need to address immediate needs before building consensus on a restorative future.

— Bart Alexander is former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors. He consults on leading sustainable change through Alexander & Associates LLC, and climate change action through Plan C Advisors.

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In your career, was there a crisis in which you learned something useful to pass on to those dealing with the current and unfolding situation created by COVID?
State of the Profession
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Veterans of corporate sustainability
Author: Kathrin Winkler
Posted: May 26, 2020, 3:00 pm