Around the world, waste continues to pile up—and it’s not expected to get any better. A World Bank report highlighted the amount of global waste generated is projected to rise from 2.01 to 3.40 billion tons between 2016 and 2050. While much of that waste is food (44%), the remaining 56% comprises materials such as glass, metal, paper and cardboard, plastic, wood, and rubber and leather. Recycling is a clear way to reduce such waste, but only about 13% of all global waste is recycled.
Why isn’t recycling more prevalent? A big reason is that it can be difficult, inconvenient or confusing for consumers. But it’s a big opportunity for companies to make a difference: While many are generally doing a better job of reducing waste during the manufacturing of their products—a process they control—most still believe that ownership of their products ends with delivery to customers.
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"If companies are serious about stepping up their sustainability agenda, they need to start taking responsibility for what's happening at the end of the supply chain—what customers do with products and packaging when they’re done with them."
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Caring beyond the shipping dock
Taking responsibility for products that customers no longer want is a mental and operational shift for most companies. Sustainability-minded organizations are leaning into the problem by creating formal programs that encourage reuse and recycling.
Electronics manufacturers and retailers have been at the vanguard of such programs—either voluntarily or because of regulations. Germany recently amended its existing e-waste law to include discounters, supermarkets and other food retailers that sell appliances. By making returns easier, the government hopes that more equipment will be recycled.
The fashion industry is also raising its game. In 2019, H&M Group collected 29,005 tons of textiles for reuse and recycling through its garment collecting initiative. This is the equivalent of about 145 million T-shirts. In the same year, Levi Strauss collected 132,899 discarded jeans from its stores and facilities and transformed them into building insulation. This saved 66 tons of waste from the landfill. And The North Face has been accepting and recycling any brand of used clothing and shoes, in any condition, for years.
Companies in sectors as diverse as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, flooring and furniture are also making significant strides in product takeback initiatives.
Why take it back?
These initiatives are powerful examples of change, but they still represent only a small fraction of all businesses. Much more could be done to retrieve products and packaging that have reached the end of their useful lives. Simply put, it’s time for companies to step up and draw the line of ownership more broadly. Formal takeback programs that can keep more products out of landfills and, ideally, transformed into something useful are a great way to start. Why?
- At minimum, it’s the right thing to do—we only have one world to live in, and the global waste problem isn’t going away on its own. But also, consumers increasingly expect companies to act more responsibly. Positive brand perceptions can translate into stronger customer loyalty and increased sales.
- Plus, companies can gain competitive advantage by getting ahead of regulatory actions that could require them to implement takeback programs. In some cases, such programs might reduce materials costs if the collected products or packaging can be repurposed or processed for reuse.
- And then there’s the direct business impact: Accenture research shows companies that find new sources of value at the intersection of digital tech and sustainability are 2.5x more likely to be among tomorrow’s strongest-performing businesses.
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Accenture’s commitment to help
I’m proud to work for an organization that’s helping companies address the waste challenge. For years, Accenture has been working with companies to embed circular economy principles and practices in their operations—especially, as it relates to the supply chain—and create more responsible value chains.
Take for instance our project to help a major pharmaceutical manufacturer develop a global takeback program for injectable medicine. For example, in the first country where the program is being piloted, patients will take their used injectable devices back to their pharmacy. Then, logistics partners will pick up the waste on their route to ensure there’s no increase in carbon emissions.
The program, which will be scaled around the world, will enable the company to “close the loop” with this product—maintaining control over and recycling non-reusable plastic waste that, until now, has ended up in landfills.
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We’ll have more to say about designing and implementing takeback programs in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you’re interested in such a program, you might want to start by assessing your own products or categories to identify which could be (or should be) taken back. It’s a key first step in discovering where you can make the biggest impact on one of the world’s most urgent challenges.
See more Supply Chain & Operations insights.