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The Circular Economy Requires Size and Scale — How Will We Get There?

Scriberia capturing workshop discussions in Nachterstedt | Image credit: Forum for the Future

In the build-up to the official launch of the world's largest aluminum recycling centre this week, John Gardner, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Novelis — which built the plant — discusses the barriers and the opportunities for taking the circular economy to scale.

The world’s largest aluminum recycling center can recycle 400,000 tons of aluminum scrap annually, returning record-breaking amounts of used material back into the circular economy. But while the scale of the Nachterstedt Recycling Center is impressive and exciting, it comes with challenges that we as a company, as an industry and as a society must overcome in order to sustain it, and other advances like it.

In early September, leading circular economy experts from Forum for the Future and around the world came together in Nachterstedt, Germany, to discuss these and other challenges — not just for our recycling center, but also similar circular economy incubators — and how we can overcome them on a macro scale.

During this session we explored three of the most significant barriers to meeting the size and scale required to make a true circular economy. Here’s what we realized:

More on the circular economy from Novelis'
John Gardner
and Forum for the Future's
James Goodman
at SB'14 London

  1. Circular sourcing, on a scalable level, is fundamental to establishing a more circular economy. To hit our 80 percent recycling targets, Novelis needs to be recycling between three and four million tonnes of aluminum each year. Closed-loop scrap recovery contracts with our customers are key to helping us meet that goal. But we also need other avenues of sourcing to meet our targets and drive the circular economy forward, and other closed-loop pioneers are in the same boat.
  2. Technological advancements enable the Nachterstedt Recycling Center to process a wider variety of scrap than has never been possible before. This allows us to take in scrap that others may not traditionally accept and widens our market opportunities for source material. However, there’s always room to grow. With further advancements and expansions, we’ll be able to process ever more challenging materials and in increasing volumes, moving us closer to our goals and helping our industry come closer to fully closing the loop. And this raised the important question: Can other industries advance in the same way, whether through technological or financial breakthroughs?
  3. Changing consumer mindsets is one of the most important and intractable challenges to address on a global scale. A lack of infrastructure and incentives means recycling rates continue to lag in many parts of the world. Even areas with high recycling rates still battle consumer misconceptions that recycled content means dirty or lower-quality materials. Changing these habits and beliefs on the micro level through consumer education could tip the scales in time, but how can we accelerate this process, what investments are needed and who are the key change agents that need to be involved - be it brands, industry or government?  

These challenges are not unique to aluminum recycling. But by identifying the challenges we face as a global society, we can better collaborate on solutions to help us achieve our mutual goal — a more circular economy. At Novelis, we’ve made the investment. Now we’re up and running, and willing to learn along the way.

This post first appeared on Novelis’ blog on September 25, 2014.

John Gardner was named Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Novelis Inc the world’s leading aluminium rolled products and aluminum recycling company, on January 1st 2011.  He is a member of the Global Executive Committee. He is responsible for driving sustainability across Novelis’… [Read more about John Gardner]

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