Circular economy spotlight: Smarter Sorting

Published on
June 30, 2019
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Scott Mackey
Scott Mackey
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This article is the first of a “Circularity Spotlight” series examining how Smarter Sorting fits into the burgeoning circular economy movement, both now and in the future. During this first post, we’ll briefly review the “waste equals food” circularity principle.

William McDonough, known to many as a “father of the circular economy” and co-creator of “Cradle to Cradle” design, was the first to coin this iconic phrase: “waste equals food.” The phrase is a simple yet powerful cornerstone of the modern circular economy movement.

To understand what it means, we need a quick snapshot of our current economic system, which is based on a linear “take-make-waste” model. Simply put: we extract materials (take), manufacture these materials into goods (make), and finally discard these goods (waste).

To understand the circular economy, consider this imagery: the linear economic model—a straight line—is “bent” into a circle and connected at its ends so that “take” and “waste” are intertwined, and dependent on each other. The “take” in a circular model derives from the “waste” (instead of virgin resources). Waste becomes food for the next cycle, which repeats perpetually. The goods of today become the resources of tomorrow. Hence, waste equals food.

Are you dizzy yet?

Smarter Sorting is tackling this fundamental circularity concept in a very tangible way when it helps retailers track and divert unsaleable items—previously considered “waste”—into pathways of reuse and recycling.

The Smarter Sorting platform allows retailers to monitor unsaleable items inventories in transparent, intuitive ways. Machine learning technology provides valuable data that helps retailers make better decisions regarding the most sustainable pathways forward for these materials—instead of just shipping them off to an incinerator or landfill. Smarter data means smarter decisions.

What does this look like in practice? If you can donate inventory previously classified as “waste” to a local nonprofit (for a tax write-off, by the way!), salvage or reuse the material (perhaps for an in-store project), the Smarter Sorting platform prompts your back-of-store employees to do so. We take the guesswork out of answering the question, “What’s next?”

Items previously considered “waste” become valuable assets. Waste equals food.

Okay, I think you get it.

Do you want to learn more about what the circular economy is, and why this model of doing business is revolutionary? Then visit The Ellen MacArthur Foundation for more information.

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October 3, 2021
5 min read

The experts at Smarter Sorting unpack consumer product claims

What does it mean for a product to be paraben-free, phthalate-free and sulfate-free? Our experts unpack 3 claims that have sparked recent health concerns.

In 2016, four cosmetics companies were charged by the Federal Trade Commission for falsely claiming that their products are “all natural” or “100% natural”. In reality, the products contained synthetic, unnatural chemicals. Each company is now barred from making similar false claims in the future, and must provide scientific evidence to substantiate their ingredient-based claims.

Of course, it’s no secret that consumer product claims help suppliers and retailers sell more products.

Just ask the droves of health and eco-conscious shoppers. These consumers are starving for trustworthy products that fit their specific needs, and they need claims to back up every purchasing decision. And when consumers can easily find and verify product claims that meet their needs, retailers and suppliers are rewarded with increased brand loyalty and increased revenue.

One study found that 64% of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products, but 74% don’t know how to identify them.

Making claims is important for the bottom line, but it’s crucial for suppliers to avoid making false or misleading claims about their products. Not only can this damage brand reputation among loyal customers, but suppliers and their retailers can suffer from decreased sales and costly regulatory fines.

There are a few claims that have gained a lot of attention recently due to various health and safety concerns.

We’ll examine three common claims in personal care products, and explain why consumers and retailers are choosing to source products that can support these claims.

1. Paraben-free

Examples of paraben-free claims

Parabens are synthetic ingredients that are commonly used as preservatives in a wide variety of products. The most commonly used parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben.

Parabens work by preventing the growth of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and other harmful microbes. They are most commonly found in personal care products like shampoo, as well as cosmetics and skin care products like facial cleansers. Believe it or not, these ingredients have been used as preservatives for decades. The more common types have attained the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) classification since as far back as the early 1970s.

However, over the past few years, studies have emerged linking paraben exposure to endocrine and reproductive harm. These compounds mimic the naturally occurring hormone estrogen, leading to disruptions in normal endocrine functions and increased risks of cancer.

As a result, many retailers have placed parabens and their derivatives on their banned substances list. In the European Union, Japan, and 10 southeast asian countries, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben are outright banned from personal care products.

2. Phthalate-free

Examples of phthalate-free claims

Phthalates are a group of chemicals derived from phthalic acid. Phthalates are most commonly used in plastics and polyvinyl chloride. In consumer products, they serve as plasticizers and solvents in personal care items, household cleaners, cosmetics, and fragrances.

For example, phthalates are used in nail polish formulas to help prevent cracking. In laundry detergent they help create that “clean” scent we all know and love. Phthalates are also found in hairspray, where they give hair a strong but flexible hold.

Those are just a few examples, but the uses for phthalates are extensive, and their presence in everyday consumer products is pervasive. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 95% of Americans have phthalates present in their urine, as reported by Environmental Health News.

Here are a few examples of common forms of phthalates found in ingredients lists:

  • DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
  • DINP (diisononyl phthalate)
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate)
  • DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate)

Much like parabens, phthalates have recently been discovered to act as endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive harm. Some studies have also identified negative impacts on neurodevelopment and cognitive function. DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), has been found to damage vital organs and is especially prolific in beauty products. According to Health Care Without Harm, a study conducted by public health organizations found that up to 70% of beauty products tested contained hazardous levels of phthalates.

Incremental steps are being made to ban or limit the amount of phthalates in consumer products. The FDA has set limits on the amount in food contact materials like plastic packaging. Additionally, six different types of phthalates are listed under California Prop 65, which heavily restricts chemicals in products that are imported, manufactured, or sold in California.

3. Sulfate-free

Examples of sulfate-free claims

Sulfates are chemical surfactants that are used as effective detergents and cleaning agents. The most common sulfates of concern in consumer products are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). These ingredients can be found on the labels of many shampoos, conditioners, laundry detergents, and even toothpastes.

Sulfates allow shampoos and soaps to foam and easily mix with water, which make them effective cleaning agents.

Several studies have been conducted to measure the toxicity of sulfates and identify potential hazards to human and ecological health. These studies by and large were unable to correlate sulfates with any associated health or environmental hazards.

However, sulfates have been found to cause skin irritation to people with existing skin issues and sensitivities. Conditions like psoriasis and eczema are exacerbated through repeated exposure. In a study conducted by the American College of Toxicology, SLS was shown to induce contact dermatitis in test subjects after brief exposure.

These compounds can also be irritating to the eyes and lungs, especially after prolonged contact. Continual use of sulfate containing shampoo has been known to dry out the scalp and hair and cause additional irritation by stripping moisture away.

Despite no clear data on toxicological and ecological hazards, skin irritation and dryness are cause enough for many consumers to seek sulfate-free products. Retailers are taking note of this trend, sourcing “sulfate-free” or “SLS/SLES free” products to make them more readily available and searchable for their customers.

Challenges with the Current System

The current system for validating chemical claims is deeply flawed. Third party labs and testing facilities are able to validate chemical claims, but are ultimately expensive and time consuming. Small suppliers can’t always afford to pay for these services. Additionally, suppliers are often required to divulge proprietary formulations and confidential business information to these third parties, which pose inherent security risks to their brand.

The process is no better for retailers. They can examine the full ingredients list for every chemical product and cross reference it against a complex, evolving database of claims and chemical thresholds. However, this process is largely manual, error prone, and requires a deep knowledge of chemistry and current regulations. Plus, how does a retailer make sense of products that are mostly free of a banned ingredient, but may contain trace amounts or byproducts?

Third party software and consulting services may offer a patchwork solution, but it's difficult for these entities to provide instant, up-to-date validations without an automated and data-driven process.

Even when claims are made, consumers are wary and distrustful of these statements. In fact, the study previously mentioned found that 45% of Americans need a third-party validating source in order to fully trust claims made by a company.

That’s where Smarter Sorting’s Product Intelligence comes in.

Product Intelligence for Trustworthy Claims

Smarter Sorting offers a data-driven approach for identifying chemicals, or lack thereof, in formulated products and overcoming challenges with the current system.

The Product Intelligence Platform takes basic, non-proprietary product attributes from suppliers, and instantly validates over 80 ingredient-based claims. The process is fully automated and relies on computational chemistry and a real time database of claims and chemical thresholds, ensuring accuracy and traceability every step of the way. For each product registered in the Product Intelligence Platform, validated claims can be easily searched, viewed, and managed.

Retailers can quickly verify claims to ensure compliance with inventory policies, upholding high standards and fostering trust among consumers. As a result, consumers can be certain that their standards for safe and healthy products are being fulfilled.

Most importantly, suppliers gain a streamlined approach for meeting retailer inventory standards, getting their products onto shelves, and providing consumers with the transparency they need. The best part? Full formulations are not required, so suppliers can keep their confidential business information just that - confidential.

Ultimately, retailers, suppliers, and consumers can all rest assured knowing that product claims are accurate, traceable, and trustworthy.

Featured image
July 23, 2020
5 min read

PLM systems: sustainability payoffs and more for retail supply chains

While the mission of Smarter Sorting is rooted in improving sustainability outcomes for retail supply chains, our platform is more than just a one-trick pony.

The positive outcomes of effective product lifecycle management means different things to different regulated product supply chain retailers and suppliers.

Typically, sustainability “wins” are high on that list.

While admirable, it must be noted that sustainability perks certainly aren’t the only advantages.

While the mission of Smarter Sorting is rooted in improving sustainability outcomes for retail supply chains, our platform is more than just a one-trick pony. Today, we’ll examine a few of the other tangible gains Smarter Sorting delivers to regulated product supply chains.

Life on the fast-track

The past few months have provided some painful lessons for regulated supply chain resiliency, efficiency, and capacity (particularly evident in the early days of the pandemic). However, from the ashes of hardship came clear logistical questions for supply chain retailers and suppliers to answer moving forward, such as:

• How quickly can I get this product to a store shelf after I produce it?

• Can we make this process better while less expensive?

Currently, regulated product registration takes a good deal of time (often weeks or even months) before products can reach store shelves. In an already unpredictable, fast-moving environment, the industry has clearly concluded this will not do.

Fortunately, through robust product lifecycle management, Smarter Sorting fast-tracks the registration process from months to days. And time, as they say, is money.

The Smarter Sorting Classification Portal provides retailers and suppliers with opportunities to create and communicate the data (such as chemical information) needed to move products to shelves faster. It ensures the handling of regulated products in the most compliant, cost-effective, and sustainable ways from the beginning of a product’s life—and all with limited data entry.

The Classification Portal provides a centralized product record—accessible to all pertinent regulated product retail supply chain stakeholders—that utilizes a variety of cutting-edge technologies. Machine learning algorithms, computational chemistry, and regulatory artificial intelligence (AI) help retailers and suppliers understand every product down to the chemical and physical level.

Classification Portal technology reads and interprets consumer chemical products at a granular level, parsing out the core chemical “truth” of any product—a data output we’ve coined as the Product Genome™.

Product Genome™ identification generates accurate regulatory classifications and automated handling instructions for every supply chain stakeholder regarding the product’s full lifecycle, including decisions related to product handling, storage, transportation, e-commerce, and waste.

Automation also eliminates human error, redundant data entry, prevents costly regulatory infractions, potentially lowers generator statuses, and slashes regulated waste costs. Furthermore, the Smarter Sorting platform helps illuminate shipping and e-commerce eligibility options that may not have existed before (due to product over-classification).

This supply chain collaboration allows for maximum agility, boosting the potential for suppliers and retailers to enhance product quality (such as improvements to product formulas), or increase the capacity to quickly identify and respond to potential sales opportunities and revenue contributions.

Ultimately, regulated product lifecycle management is cleaner, quicker, and easier.

Safety first

With Product Genome™ data in-hand, vital questions are answerable regarding compliant, safe product handling because product data is accurate and truthful. For example, during the pandemic, suppliers have been forced to grapple with transportation classifications (e.g., is it safe to fly this product?), product placement on store shelves (if proximity between products is potentially hazardous), customer questions about product efficacy or appropriate end-of-life product disposal.

Product Genome™ data directly informs these decisions because data is well-documented and authenticated.

Making cents and storytelling

Product data and tracking can be particularly useful at the end of a regulated product’s lifecycle, particularly if that product takes on a second life as a charitable donation.

Are you donating a can of paint to a local nonprofit? Or perhaps you have a backlog of cleaning supplies for a hospital? Many retail operations don’t take full advantage of these tax deductions available to them because they don’t track them.

Smarter Sorting solves this challenge.

Furthermore, with the Smarter Sorting platform, retailers get total visibility into waste streams and can potentially pass disposal fees back to suppliers. In addition to cost-savings, waste reduction and business optimization, retailers can use this data to tell the stories behind donations, reuse, and recycling efforts.

While these stories provide favorable circumstances to share company highlights and gain public admiration, they are also opportunities to inspire stewardship greatness as we all pull in the direction of sustainability.

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