Is ECOR the new material that retailers and brands need?
Each year, the retail graphics and corrugated display markets produce 6.8-billion-square-metres of product, most of which are made from virgin paper-based products like cardboard and paperboard, or non-recyclable plastics and foam. Given the dependence on virgin materials to make these products and their high volume of turnover in stores, the realm of visual merchandising, retail graphics and point-of-sale displays may not be an obvious place for brands to begin circular economy innovation, but Noble Environment Technologies have identified it is an easy, efficient and economical starting point for engagement, through their new material ECOR.
The vision for a regenerative circular economy, where biological and technical materials are recycled at their highest value and utility at all times, is often juxtaposed with the current linear model, where raw materials are taken out of the ground, turned into a product, usually as part of a high-energy process, before being landfilled or incinerated. A small percentage of products and components are recovered, but they were never designed with that end of use intention in mind, meaning that significant material value is lost during recycling processes. In this model, quarter-by-quarter sale growth is the key criterion for success, which counters the impact of traditional efficiency driven solutions because there is always a need to produce and sell more “things”.
In many shops and stores, the drive to sell has created an enormous market for in-store advertising, visual merchandising, and point-of-sale displays, which has significant material demands of its own. Hypermarkets chain Wal-Mart uses nearly three million tonnes of cardboard annually; accounting for 6% of total cardboard recycled each year in the United States. Point-of-sale displays typically run on one short use cycle, recycling does happen when made from cardboard, but significant value is lost at the fibre level after each cycle, with the quality of recycled product also impacted by the graphics printed on it.
Global brands and retailers have demonstrated a desire to address these concerns by buying marketing and print materials with higher levels of recycled content, but the market’s best solutions have so far not been truly economically competitive and contain a substantial portion of virgin material content offering only limited recyclability after first use.
To address these challenges, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Lab partnered up with Noble Environment Technologies to develop ECOR – a diverse collection of high performance building materials and products that are made from 100% recycled waste sources and is free of the toxic glues and chemical binding agents often associated with many of materials it displaces in the market.
The ECOR product line of Graphic Display Board is designed for print and display applications, is Cradle to Cradle® certified, 100% biobased, and biodegradable. Furthermore, ECOR solutions often results in end-products that are lower cost or cost-neutral, while offering advanced design principles for strength, durability, structural integrity, ligher weight and versatility. It has been developed in the context of growing awareness of the problems associated with the global economy’s current palette of core materials including wood, metals, foam and petroleum-based plastics, which are subject to price volatilities, uncertainty over stocks, are generally unrecoverable or difficult to recycle, and come with externality costs at points of extraction and disposal.
Produced by combining water and cellulose fibres to form a slurry, which is then poured onto a mould, pressed to extract the water and baked at a high heat, ECOR’s process requires zero additives and works with fibres from just about any organic source, including: office paper, old corrugated cardboard, cotton fabrics, synthetic textiles agricultural waste, coffee grounds, spent brewers grain and more.
As a material that can be made from a wide range of recycled waste and designed for recyclability, ECOR has huge opportunity to recycle significant volumes of materials, which would otherwise be landfilled, by instead converting it into building materials and products. Perhaps most intriguing thing about this material is that the way in which it is created means that, at the end of use, it can be broken down again to fibre level and put back through the process to create another batch of the material.
ECOR-based printed graphics and point-of-sale displays can be baled and recycled alongside regular cardboard and has already been used in a number of large retailers including H&M, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart. Creating demand and increasing marketplace knowledge about the material’s performance characteristics has been the primary objective over the past year, especially as the brand continues to grow in use among graphic designers, printers, visual merchandisers and the global brands they service.
Circular economy, as an idea, continues to gain traction among both product manufacturers and retailers worldwide, but the concept’s continued acceleration will depend on the ability for businesses to continue finding the real solutions that unlock immediate economic returns. ECOR provides the opportunity for retailers and brands to convert their waste streams into material that can be used for their graphics and displays, commercial packaging and even construction of new stores. A future where companies are able to reduce recycling, logistics and procurement costs, transform their waste streams into valuable products and decouple dependence upon wood, MDF, cardboard may not be that far away.