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  • Reimagining waste as a resource

    Upcycling waste in manufacturing

    • We all generate waste. According to the EPA, the average American throws away more than 1,600 pounds (726 Kg) of waste per year. And that's just what we discard after using something. When you take into account the waste involved in collecting raw materials, converting them into usable goods, and transporting them around the world, the number is truly staggering - around 46,000 pounds (nearly 21,000 Kg) of waste per person. While some of that waste is recycled, most of it is either burned for fuel or buried in a landfill.

      Consumer recycling of goods like plastic bottles and cardboard boxes is great, but individuals can barely make a dent in the mountain of waste that's left behind. Even if you recycled, reused, and composted everything you bought, the majority of the waste is out of your hands.

      That's why companies are exploring ways to reduce that upstream waste. Part of that is designing manufacturing processes that use more recyclable and biodegradable products, so there's less waste in the first place. But it’s also about finding more uses for the waste that's an inevitable byproduct of industry.

      This already happens to an extent. There's a good chance that some of the asphalt roads you drive on are partly made of slag, the stony material that's left behind when iron is separated out from ore. After all, why mine sand and gravel for the same job when we're already digging so much of it up with our metals? And you may have an example of industrial recycling in your kitchen: some sponges are made of natural fibers, including the agave leaf, a byproduct for the making of tequila.

      But it's more than figuring out whose trash is your treasure. It's time to reimagine waste, not as waste, but as a resource. Instead of looking at industrial byproducts as something to be gotten rid of, we should be looking at their properties and determining what they're good for. When 3M started looking at what waste products could do, an entire facility was created to convert waste from our own processes into high-quality plastics.

      There's a strong business case to be made for using recycled materials. But it's not just good business: it's the right thing to do.

      As the founder of 3M’s Pollution Prevention Pays Program, Dr. Joe Ling, once said, “The world is a very small place, and pollution doesn’t respect national boundaries.”  Today, preventing and reimagining waste is a global challenge shared by consumers, businesses, governments and communities around the world.