Aluminum, and the circular economy

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Aluminum is an amazing material, as I’ve written before (here and here). It’s infinitely recyclable, lightweight and strong.

Ford is making more of America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup, out of aluminum. Other automakers, too, are designing more aluminum into their cars.

The typical aluminum beverage can in North America is made of about 68 percent recycled content and, according to the industry, a can that’s recycled becomes a new can in less than 60 days. Some craft brewers are turning to cans.

Nevertheless, somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away and wind up in landfalls in the US, I’m told. Only because we are such a rich country can we afford to waste so much. But why should we?

One company that is aiming to drive aluminum recycling is Atlanta-based Novelis. Novelis is the industry leader when it comes to recycling–the company, unlike its competitors, owns no mines–and it talks a lot about the idea of a circular economy. Last week, I wrote a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about the company and its new product, the evercan, which is made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.

The evercan is, by all accounts, an environmentally superior product to conventional aluminum beverage cans, and arguably a better single-serve beverage package that PET bottles–but so far, no major beverage company has adopted it. My story asks why.

The story is getting some pushback, in the comments as well as privately from readers I respect. They say that no company has the right expect other companies or consumers to buy a “greener” product. Of course, that’s correct. My point is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors all say they want to promote recycling, but none has yet committed to the most recycled beverage container on the market.

Criticism came, as well, because I was hired earlier this month by Novelis to moderate a panel on the circular economy, at the opening of the company’s new aluminum recycling plant in Nachterstedt, Germany. This was disclosed in the Guardian. I knew there was a risk in writing about Novelis under those circumstances but I felt the story was still worth doing. [For a much longer explanation of how I manage conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, see this. The short version: I’m transparent about my paid moderating and speaking work.]

While in Germany, I spent a good deal of time with Novelis and its head of sustainability, John Gardner, and I came away impressed. I’m sure this influenced my approach to the story. But I’m not alone in believing that the company is a sustainability leader. Its include such respected environmental thinkers as Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future, Matt Arnold of JPMorgan Chase and author-academic Stu Hart.

What I learned while reporting the story is that inventing and manufacturing a greener product isn’t enough to drive change. Other business issues–in this case, what appears to be the understandable reluctance of the big beverage companies to depend on a single supplier–can stand in the way. Changing systems is hard.

In any event, you can judge the story for yourself. Here is how it begins:

Imagine an infinitely recyclable product that performs as well as the alternative, costs less to make, and is unquestionably better for the environment. You would bet on its success, wouldn’t you?

Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, has made that bet. Since 2012 the Atlanta, Georgia-based company has invested half a billion dollars in recycling by building, among other things, the world’s biggest aluminum recycling plant. This $260m high-tech marvel officially opened earlier this month in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Novelis uses the facility to produce materials for its “evercan”, a beverage container made of 90% recycled aluminum.

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum is a poster child for shifting from a linear take-make-waste model of industrial production to a circular model in which everything, at the end of its useful life, is made into something else.

On its website Novelis endorses the circular economy, stating that it is moving its “whole business model” toward a closed loop. “We are embracing an entirely new way of thinking and operating, in order to radically transform our company – and, in the process, lead the way in our industry.”

But Novelis is having trouble finding followers. None of the world’s major beverage companies have adopted the evercan. So far, the product has just one customer: Red Hare Brewing Co., a small craft brewer based in Marietta, Georgia.

You can read the rest here.

Turning JP Morgan green from the inside out

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

Can Wall Street become a friend of the earth? For nearly a decade now, most of the big investment and commercial banks have had chief sustainability officers, but it’s never been clear to me what they can and cannot do.

To find out, I spoke recently with Matt Arnold, the head of environmental affairs for JP Morgan Chase, who I’ve known for years. Matt, a lifelong environmentalist, was refreshingly honest.

In my latest column for the Guardian Sustainable Business website, I report on what I learned. Here’s how the story begins:

Deep inside the belly of the beast known as JPMorgan Chase toils a lifelong environmentalist and former Eagle Scout named Matthew Arnold who is trying to help turn the bank, if not green, well, a bit greener. It’s a daunting job.

Arnold, 51, joined the company in autumn 2011 as head of the office of environmental affairs because, he says, of the sheer scale of the opportunity; last year, the bank booked $99.9bn (£64bn) in revenue and $21.3bn (£14bn) in profits, providing credit and raising capital of more than $1.8tn, for everything from home mortgages to credit cards to corporate bonds and IPOs. The bank manages another $1.4bn in assets (as of September 2012) for clients. If Arnold can help steer even a slice of that towards more sustainable ventures – for example, towards wind and solar energy and away from coal – he will be doing his part to make Wall Street a friend of the earth. But can he?

“The position I’m in now has the greatest potential for impact of anything I’ve done,” Arnold says. “Yet there’s no manual for this. There’s not a clear roadmap.”

You can read the rest of the column here.

On Wednesday, by coincidence, at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, I’ll be interviewing Matt and Erika Karp, who is head of global sector research at UBS, to talk about the role of Wall Street in promoting sustainability. Matt and Erika will also be joining us this spring at Fortune Brainstorm Green.

 

 

Why count carbon?

Hara Software is a clean tech startup, funded by Kleiner Perkins, that originally got a lot of attention as a company to that help others curb their carbon footprint. Oops. That doesn’t look like such a great selling point today, as proposed U.S. legislation to curb greenhouse gases is stalled and we are moving farther away, not closer to, an international agreement to deal with climate change.

But Hara now talks about “organizational metabolism” — the idea that companies can run more efficiently while consuming fewer inputs — and says that its software will help clients “minimize environmental impact and maximize profits.” It’s got a solid list of customers, including Safeway, Intuit, News Corp., Brocade and, most recently, Hasbro.

logo_greenbizThis Tuesday (6/29) at 2 p.m. EDT, I’m going to moderate a free webinar organized by Greenbiz.com (where I am a senior writer) in which we’ll learn more about how environmental, energy and carbon management can deliver bottom-line benefits. It’s called “From Reporting to Reduction: The Resource Optimization Imperative” (not my title!) and you can sign up for it here.

I’m looking forward to it because the speakers who will be joining me are smart executives with long and impressive track records in business, the nonprofit world and government. Matt Arnold is a principal with PriceWaterhouse Coopers who leads the firm’s climate change practice; he previously worked at IBM, Merrill Lynch and as a top exec at the World Resources Institute, and he’s a member of the board of Forest Trends. Michel Gelobter is the chief green officer at Hara, the founder of Cooler, the former director of environmental quality for the city of New York, and a board member of the NRDC and Ceres.

Please join us — we’ll be taking questions during the hour-long webinar.