Cycling the Material Economy

By Scott Cassel

Nearly four decades ago, I roamed the Quad with piles of psych and English texts tucked beneath my arms, before leaving school for a “gap year” with my dog, Jackson, to jam the road with Kerouacic enlightenment. The Grand Canyon, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, and Big Sur posed questions to me I could not answer. Organic food gave me answers to questions I did not yet have.

I returned to Penn a year later and threw myself into the Geologic depths of canyons, streams, and tectonic plates to figure out WHY. And then I was faced with WHAT I could do to protect these great lands. What was MY personal responsibility to ensure the beauty would be there for me and others?

My Environmental Studies deepened. I was confronted with the Three Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown, acid rain in the White Mountains, uranium tailings on Native lands – all of which I was unequipped to stop. So I did what I could. I collected the neighborhood’s newspapers on my porch and shuttled them to trailer trucks at the now defunct Ecology Food Coop in Powelton Village; drove the Penn Recycling truck to gather newspapers from metal bins; and sold barrels of smashed glass containers to scrap dealers in West Philadelphia to fuel recycling parties and truck gas. I was saving a few resources if not saving the world. And I fit all the environmentalist stereotypes.

The American landscape fueled my passion; Penn academics kept me sober.

Back then, the Wharton Business School towered over me on Locust Walk like a shadow at dusk – mysterious, powerful, and foreboding. The drive for PROFIT drove me away. I did not know that the skills needed to run a non-profit business were right under my nose.

I am coming back now – and things have certainly changed. The old tensions between business and environmental interests have dissipated because there are no sides in a system that calls for (and could collapse without) cooperation. Wharton Genius can transform materials into all sorts of creative and useful stuff. But since stuff is depleting Earth’s raw materials, we need to cycle the stuff and keep it in commerce as part of a Circular Economy. What goes around comes around – from Recycling, Cradle to Cradle, and Zero Waste to the Circular Economy. Material to Product to Material to Product. Harnessing the value of the material economy. We have learned that we are better off walking in a cul-de-sac than down a one-way street.

But who is responsible for making these changes toward this circular economy? Who is responsible for wastes from mining? Emissions from burning coal, gas, and oil? Landfills filled with stuff? Pharmaceuticals in waterways? Old mattresses and tires in vacant lots? Toxics in our products?

Are these market failures? Or is this just the way the free market has been allowed to operate? We know that the free market is not free. But who is paying for the externalities that result from making and selling all the stuff? Is cleaning up a mess a voluntary effort? Or is this what we expect Government to do? And do companies pursue Corporate Social Responsibility only when it has marketing benefits that allow them to sell more stuff?

There are many questions to answer.

How do we create systems that balance regulation with the need to create a corporate consciousness that protects while it profits? How can we reorient our production and consumption patterns toward sustainability and reduce the level of material depletion? How do we create a new playing field so that product manufacturers design for recycling during product conception? And how do we link the benefits of sustainable development to the profit priorities that keep businesses running, producing, and solving problems?

The systems of production and consumption are piecemeal. We need to gather these pieces to develop an economic loop that creates value from waste all along the way, so that the loop keeps cycling over and over to unleash innovation and tap new ideas of which we can now only dream.

Join Scott Cassel, CEO and Founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, for a discussion about how Penn (and later MIT) equipped him to start an organization that engages consumer product companies to take responsibility for reducing the health and environmental impacts of the products they make and sell.


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