By Courtney Bell, MBA ’22
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Marcius Extavour, Vice President, Energy & Climate at XPRIZE, in an EDGE Seminar at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Fall 2021. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or the seminar speaker.
In our seminar on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), XPRIZE Energy & Climate VP, Marcius Extavour, compared trash to CO2 emissions to drive home a point about governance: robust waste management solutions emerged after governments banned the existing trash piled up on streets, and CO2 management solutions like CDR will only emerge at scale once governments crack down on existing emissions in a similar manner. Later in his seminar, Marcius described for us the carbontech industry, composed of companies that capture and convert CO2 into raw material inputs for products ranging from vodka to sunglasses to concrete. Carbontech products are, or are close to being, net carbon negative, meaning that they trap–permanently–more atmospheric CO2 than they generate during manufacturing. Given carbontech’s overlap with the CPG space, I started to wonder if the “trash = carbon” analogy could also apply to the commercialization of post-consumer waste and carbon. I believe the analogy does not apply, and I’ll explain why below.
The Commercialization of Waste: Post-Consumer Recycled Goods
After waste management systems emerged to keep streets clean, recycling systems entered the picture to better address and repurpose much of this waste so it wouldn’t enter landfills and release emissions, toxic runoff, and microplastics into the environment. More recently, corporations and consumers alike have taken traditional recycling a step further and have embraced the concept of a circular economy where trash is repurposed in such a way that it can continue cycling through a closed loop indefinitely.
Within the circular economy movement, one of the more commercialized solutions to emerge is the PCR (i.e., post-consumer recycled) concept where recovered waste such as plastic water bottles are converted into raw materials (such as textile fibers) that are used to make sustainable consumer goods products (such as leggings). This practice helps divert potential waste streams from landfills and oceans, and also reduces the industry’s reliance on extracting virgin inputs from the earth in order to create new products.
Despite the environmental benefits of creating consumer goods from recycled inputs, the circular economy community assigned this practice a fairly negative-sounding term: downcycling. Downcycling is the recycling of waste to create a recycled material output that is of lower quality and functionality than the original material. During downcycling, the input material is structurally altered in such a way that it can never be re-extracted and recycled again, effectively removing it from a closed loop system.
The Commercialization of Carbon: Carbontech
The PCR consumer goods industry emerged as a means to profit off of existing waste management efforts but is, as I just described, considered a downcycling practice because waste inputs are permanently removed from the closed loop system during manufacturing. Carbontech–an industry that profits off of the CO2 emissions management solution known as CDR–can also be regarded as a form of downcycling because CO2 emissions are permanently removed from the system during carbontech product manufacturing. But despite these similarities, I think that the “trash = carbon” analogy that applied so well to governance cannot be extended to the commercialization aspect of CDR.
The primary reason I don’t think that the commercialization of trash and CO2 emissions (PCR and carbontech products, respectively) go hand-and-hand the same way they do under the governance framework is because the commercialization of these forms of waste accomplishes very different goals. For PCR consumer goods, the downcycling of trash inputs such as plastic water bottles serves to disrupt the closed loop system that the circular economy movement is trying to build up. On the other hand, the permanent removal of CO2 emissions via carbontech manufacturing entirely aligns with the CDR movement’s objective to permanently remove a minimum of 10 gigatons of CO2 emissions annually to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Although the “trash = carbon” analogy does not quite apply to the commercialization of recovered trash and CO2 emissions, the PCR consumer goods and carbontech industries both raise some similar concerns that we should be wary of before lauding carbontech as a fool-proof carbon removal solution. These concerns pertain to the consumerism and end-of-life implications of both industries.
We live in a society where hyper-consumerism is a way of life, and with over-consumption comes the mass disposal of items most people probably didn’t need in the first place. If someone were to impulse buy a pair of PCR leggings and eventually toss them, these leggings, despite being made from more sustainable inputs, will be no kinder to the environment than any pair of landfilled conventional leggings. The PCR leggings will still clog landfills, leach microplastics, and generate greenhouse gas emissions, raising end-of-life issues. Critics of the sustainable fashion industry in particular have been quick to call out brands for leveraging their products’ sustainable value prop as a means to promote the mass consumption (and the inevitable mass disposal) of these products, and the same sentiment can be extended to carbontech products. Some exceptions aside (such as the durable carbon-infused concrete), most carbontech products will eventually get landfilled or digested and excreted, causing the trapped carbon to get re-released into the environment.
Ultimately, I do believe carbontech has great potential to be a net negative solution as long as industry leaders are mindful about the consumerism and end-of-life implications of carbontech products. While I hope the “trash = carbon” analogy for governance continues to hold and we see more governments intervening to manage existing CO2 emissions in a meaningful way, when it comes to the commercialization of these waste streams, I hope that carbontech products don’t follow the same path as PCR products in promoting mass consumption and landfilling, or in terms of straying from the goals of its parent movement.
 Carbon to Value initiative. Carbon to Value Initiative. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.c2vinitiative.com/.
 What is downcycling? Glass, Plastic, Metal Bottles and Caps Wholesale – O.Berk®. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.oberk.com/packaging-crash-course/downcycling-temp.
 Circular Carbon Market Report 2020. Circular Carbon Network. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://circularcarbon.org/market-report/.
 Brown, Rachel. The environmental crisis caused by textile waste. RoadRunner Recycling. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.roadrunnerwm.com/blog/textile-waste-environmental-crisis.