For several decades, the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has been running a semantics campaign to emphasize that scrap is not waste and that recyclable materials are secondary raw materials.
This publication is a constant supporter of this message, and the editors make a serious effort not to use the word “waste” as synonymous with junk, secondary raw materials, or other words that convey a lot of discarded material of value. (My colleague DeAnne Toto only formulated the case perfectly in July.)
Despite notable successes thanks to this campaign, ISRI is reportedly considering changing or updating its wording regarding recyclable materials and how best to distinguish them from landfill or incineration-related waste.
One suggestion from this corner is the term “circular goods”. Like the word “sustainability”, the term “circular economy” seems to hold on and be recognized as a good thing by people and governments around the world.
Unfortunately, the terms “scrap” and “secondary raw materials” both have shortcomings. In the minds of many people, something that is scrapped is written off. In this sense, something secondary could be viewed as secondary.
A circular product label fends off these connotations. Getting unanimous support for any policy is an unlikely prospect. However, in the current climate, sustainable and circular policies tend to find significant support.
The reformulation is by no means a panacea. Governments and political advocates who want to restrict trade in and financial support for circular commodities (for perceived environmental or protectionist reasons) will continue to do so.
Circular raw materials in 2021 will set new and higher price standards, also in the much-criticized area of plastics recycling. That hasn’t stopped recycling critics from sticking with the attack. China has banned many circular materials even though their residue levels are well below those of metal ores or concentrates. Malaysia could essentially follow China’s example.
Advocating keeping raw materials closer to home is also a trend that is gaining momentum around the world. It is important to note that reformulation alone will not stop all policy action or corporate decision-making in the broader economic and political arenas.
One form of linguistic highs, however, could be a welcome result of a term like circular commodities. A public argument against material circulation – reuse and recycling and the associated conservation of resources – becomes more difficult than lobbying against waste, scrap or secondary materials.
For those of us in the industry, all of these terms can mean the same thing, and we’re happy with the old terminology. In the political arena, however, words are twisted and tampered with, and recyclers and traders seem to need sharper language.