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What Can This 20-Year-Old Recycling Program Teach Companies About Circularity?

This 20-year-old ceiling recycling program started in response to a customer request and grew into a powerful private-sector example of the circular economy.
By Roya Sabri
ceiling recycling program

When it comes to the pursuit of a circular economy, the big innovations often grab the headlines while sustained achievements continue quietly with little hullabaloo. Here’s an example from ceiling and wall solutions company Armstrong World Industries, based in Pennsylvania, which has been running a ceiling recycling program for over two decades. 

Now, recovering material in the construction industry may not sound like it’s going to change the world, but it may just make a dent. The U.S. construction and demolition sector generated 600 million tons of waste in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available from the Environmental Protection Agency. By weight, that’s more than twice the amount of municipal waste generated by homes and businesses that year, according to the agency. 

Armstrong’s program isn’t flashy, but it’s effective. The company says its Ceiling Recycling Program has reduced the need for virgin raw materials by over 1 million tons to date. “We’ve recycled more than 200 million square feet of ceiling panels from renovation projects,” Anita Snader, the company’s environmental sustainability manager, told TriplePundit. Consistent throughout the manufacturer’s story is commitment, and commitment is what Snader recommends to other companies pursuing circularity. 

Building a recycling program through trust and partnerships

Through Armstrong’s program, ceiling materials are sent to the company’s closest manufacturing plant after they are removed during renovations or demolition, and Armstrong recycles them into new ceiling panels in a closed-loop process. This allows the company to sell products with high recycled content, which in turn helps customers achieve green building ratings and carbon reduction goals.

The program began as a customer request: A major company came to Armstrong asking for an alternative to dumping its old ceiling tiles in a landfill, Snader said. The program stuck, and since then major developers, retailers and tech companies have used it to recycle their old tiles. “At that point, when it was introduced, I think it was something new. It was embraced, because it was something new to take advantage of,” Snader reflected. 

Corporate clients already used Armstrong’s products and trusted them as high quality, giving salespeople a platform to educate the industry about the new option and allowing the company to build its recycling program before climate and zero-waste commitments became prevalent, Snader said. “It really is an alternative to the whole ‘take, make, dispose’ thinking,” she told us. 

Standing as a pillar during Armstrong’s early sustainability efforts, the recycling program has since scaled across the United States and into Canada, and partnerships have been key for broadening reach, Snader said. For example, the logistics of demolition and material removal can be particularly challenging in big cities like New York. Armstrong has developed a partnership with a major material recovery facility that is adept at working in New York’s dense commercial districts so it can recover more material for recycling. “We’ve been reaching out to others that are focused on material recovery through all these 22 years,” Snader told us. 

Bringing value to customers is also central to the program, she said. After all, meeting a customer’s need is how the program began. “We’re always looking at … ways to bring value to our customers, and [recycling] provides a way to do that,” she told us.

“Recycling programs like Armstrong’s have helped our company and customers address our publicized commitments toward landfill diversion and pollution reduction,” Mark Chen, senior sustainability engineer for Skanska USA Building, a contractor working with Armstrong, added. 

From recycling to circularity 

Moving forward, Armstrong has committed to sustainability goals that aim for circularity. By 2030, the company’s targets include recycling, reusing or repurposing half of its products at end of use, and reducing its carbon footprint by half and water use by 20 percent. Aiming for these goals has required a refresh to some aspects of the business, Snader said, including a new partnership with the Ellen McArthur Foundation. 

As part of Armstrong’s partnership with the foundation, the company evaluated its progress toward circularity using a tool call the Circulytics Assessment. “As part of our waste reduction goals, we now have a baseline measurement of progress which will serve as a start to creating a roadmap for improvement,” Snader said.

Again, the big practical takeaway is partnerships — not only to help fulfill services like waste collection and hauling, but also to support education and awareness. In the building industry that may include providing specifications for building owners, general contractors and architects to consider recycling in the planning phase or helping customers estimate their diversion and recycling savings. (Armstrong provides its customers with a recycling savings calculator.) Across many industries, another critical component is building the infrastructure for manufacturing facilities to process recycled material. 

Any closed-loop system — in any industry — has a lot of moving parts, but Snader said the commitment is worth it, citing one of her favorite quotes to encapsulate the purpose of circularity: “There really is no away,” she told us — no away from planet Earth, that is. Meaning that materials don’t have endless life. When materials are thrown away, they do not simply vanish, rather they go to a landfill. The key to achieving circularity is extending the use of materials for as long as possible. 

This article series is sponsored by Armstrong World Industries and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of Armstrong World Industries 

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Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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