Reflections on recycling challenges and the Net Impact 2010 Conference

This article was written by second-year Duke Master of Environmental Management student Emily Spear.  Emily is an EDGE Corporate Sustainability Fellow.

Ross School of Business, U. of Mich.

Ross School of Business, U. of Mich.

The cold and dreary weather of Michigan was hardly noticed during the 2010 Net Impact Conference at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.  To begin, the Ross School’s building and facilities were top notch, as proved by achievement of LEED certification – sizable wood-paneled auditoriums, tremendous natural light, water fountains that accommodate Nalgene© bottles, and compost bins around every corner.

Friday’s first keynote was a conversation with Kim Jeffery, CEO of Nestle Waters North America, and Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle.  The conversation was moderated by Fortune Magazine’s Marc Gunther and centered around waste and water bottles. [Video available online.]

Jeffery reiterated the need to extend producer responsibility by offering consumers easier recycling capabilities (i.e. companies working with governments to expand recycling campaigns).  McDonough discussed the need to “eliminate the concept of waste,” as all parts of a discarded product, like a water bottle, are “intelligent” and can be used in a new way.  Though the two were in agreement, it simply seemed that one was saying we need more recycling programs (Jeffery) and the other was saying that we need to redesign our products and systems (McDonough).  

Aside from this slight discrepancy, I did learn some additional interesting points:

  • there is 46 times the amount of plastic versus plankton in the ocean
  • you cannot mix biodegradable products with recycled content, so you have to determine which will have lesser environmental impact and which is more economically and politically feasible
  • only 30% of PET bottles are recycled and 50% of the U.S. population has curbside recycling available

While sitting in the audience, I could not help but think about other facets of the water and waste debate.  Where was the political side of the debate being discussed?  What about the impact on local water supplies?  What are the long-term implications of reusing plastic for water bottles; is there still a risk of carcinogens leaching from the plastic into the water?  What polices are needed to ensure the quality of bottled water and to increase the amount of plastic recycled?

Unfortunately, most of these questions were left unanswered.  Although, to keep things in perspective, the speakers focused on the numerous possibilities to depict a positive future.  After all, we were at the beginning of the Net Impact Conference, so it only made sense to begin a conference with feelings of opportunity, inspiration, and excitement about the future and our potential to have a positive impact!

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