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Student Experience

Rethinking the Economy to Protect the Environment

Industry and government experts come together to discuss the need for a circular economy

By Paul Smirl | Photography by Paul L. Newby II

April 10, 2019

Three panel speakers present on a stage
Mathy Stanislaus speaks during the circular economy panel at the Wisconsin School of Business. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

The global economy has long been linear: Raw materials are gathered, made into products, and products are used and discarded. In the process, landfills become towering, greenhouse gas emissions increase, and ecosystems are destroyed.

Experts point to a circular economy as a solution: an economy that relies on reusing materials, and considers the whole lifespan of a product.

To discuss this concept, two University of Wisconsin–Madison units brought in leaders from private industry and government for a dialogue on creating a sustainable future and transforming the way the world does business.

The circular economy panel was part of the Sustainable Success Lecture Series. It was moderated by Jake Dean, director of the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at the Wisconsin School of Business and Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

It featured Brian Wycklendt, director of lead and recycling strategy at Johnson Controls Inc.; Jeff Zeman, manager of the product sustainability engineering team at Kohler Company; and Mathy Stanislaus, a former Obama administration EPA official and current circular economy fellow with the World Resources Institute and senior advisor to the World Economic Forum.

3 ways to transition to a circular economy

1. Design products with their end of life in mind.

Jeff Zeman says the best thing we can do for sustainability is to design things for longevity.

His job at Kohler tasks him with coming up with inventive ways to make sure products are durable. In a world littered with single-use items, Zeman and his team work to design products that get the most out of their materials’ intrinsic values.

At Johnson Controls Power Solutions, Brian Wycklendt helps create new car batteries out of old car batteries.

The batteries are designed by Johnson Controls, people use them in their cars, and Johnson Controls picks them up when they no longer work. The used battery materials then circle back into Johnson Controls’ production as a part of a closed-loop supply chain.

“It really starts with the product design,” says Wycklendt. “It’s important for our engineers to start thinking now about the end of the life.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the materials from batteries can be recycled,” Wycklendt says, and with new battery technologies like lithium-ion emerging, it’s essential that Johnson Controls continues to value reusing materials as it innovates.

Johnson Controls creates new car batteries out of old batteries.

2. Promote sustainability to the consumer.

Zeman sees a world in which businesses can profit off their sustainable decisions.

“A more sustainable design—a more circular design—can’t represent a compromise to the consumer. It can’t represent a tradeoff,” Zeman says. “If something can be better because of sustainability, now you’re onto something.”

Kohler is a part of a partnership with Teracycle called Loop that brings together durable goods manufacturers and consumer goods manufacturers. Their goal is to eliminate waste and give consumers better options for long-lasting products.

“What if we could give the consumer a very elegant container, something that they want to have on their countertop, and make that what they use, and have that be something that’s refillable?” asks Zeman.

Plastic bottles don’t add to the look and feel of a room, so why not market high-design items that are sustainable and add value to the consumer? The bottles then stop stacking up in the trash and people have something that can keep for years.

3. Change public policy.

Mathy Stanislaus stresses the importance of understanding how laws affect companies’ ability to be sustainable.

Laws for manufacturers, recyclers, and remanufacturers need to be carefully examined, he suggests. Each segment affects the environment differently, and they each need policy that incentivizes truly sustainable practices.

“Taxation currently acts as a penalty for remanufacturing goods,” Stanislaus says. To move toward a circular economy hinged on reusing materials, Stanislaus suggests an inducement of remanufacturing be put in place.

Stanislaus is also leery of the current bans on plastic bags.

He states that while plastic bags undoubtedly negatively affect the environment, the unintended consequence of banning them, is the skyrocketing of production of cotton bags.

“A cotton bag has 70 times-or-so the greater greenhouse impact,” says Stanislaus. “To be equivalent to that plastic bag, you have to bring that cotton bag 70 times.”

He says that banning plastic is a simple solution, but one that only addresses the symptom—not the system: We need to think more broadly about product life cycles when introducing policy.

Final takeaways: cutting costs, big data, and changing our mind sets

  • Wycklendt shared a personal anecdote. When he started at Johnson Controls 30 years ago in a finance role, he worked hard to find ways for the company to cut costs. He suggested buying new lead instead of recycled lead.

His suggestion didn’t go over well. Wycklendt was rebuked by leadership, and he eventually changed his thinking, becoming a sustainability leader for the company.

“Don’t make the same mistake I did of just looking at one piece, look at the big picture and learn from examples that have worked,” Wycklendt quips.

“Recycle is just a notch above landfilling and sometimes it’s actually worse. The real benefits are on that reduce and reuse application.”

—Jeff Zeman, manager of the product sustainability engineering team at Kohler Company

  • Stanislaus asked businesses and consumers to critically analyze problems and use digital tools to help create a more sustainable future:

“Big data and AI really reveal opportunities—the hotspots in the supply chain—to align business drivers and environmental drivers.”

  • Zeman spoke about challenging our current assumptions:

Need to get from one city to another? You don’t need to own a car, you need transportation. Your hands are wet after washing them? You don’t need paper towels, you need dry hands.

Even the commonly refrained slogan of “reduce, reuse, recycle” should be questioned, according to Zeman.

“Recycle is just a notch above landfilling and sometimes it’s actually worse. The real benefits are on that reduce and reuse application.”

The Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management supports the top-ranked Supply Chain Management specialization in the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Program, the new MS degree in Supply Chain Management, and an undergraduate certificate in the Wisconsin BBA Program.

“Supply chain is the function within most organizations that consumes resources,” says Jake Dean, director of the Grainger Center. “When the CEO and leadership team look around at who’s going to solve sustainability problems, the heads turn toward supply chain. That has become an increasing motivator of people who go into supply chain management.”