Achieving a circular economy where nothing goes to waste will demand unprecedented levels of collaboration, innovation and new business models.
By Carrie Schuster
The take, make, use, dispose system has long been the standard approach to production and consumption. In this linear model, companies take raw materials and transform them into products, which are then purchased and used by consumers, who ultimately toss them out, creating waste that ends up in landfills. This system has led to high costs and inefficiencies for businesses, harmed the environment and depleted natural resources. In recent years, increased recycling has helped reduce the amount of material waste that ends up in landfills. However, recycling alone is not enough to create a sustainable life cycle for products.
A more sustainable option is the circular “reduce-reuse-recycle” model. Increased consumer awareness about sustainability and government initiatives to promote sustainable product life cycles, like the European Commission’s circular economy package, have already started to shift mindsets away from the traditional linear economy to a circular economy. Consumers, governments and businesses are beginning to recognize the value in examining every step in the product journey, from how we make and use products to how we dispose of them, in order to make a significant impact on reducing waste.
Extracting Maximum Value
In contrast to the linear economy, the circular economy is based on the underlying principles of using materials and resources for as long as possible, extracting their maximum value while in use and reusing products at the end of their lifecycle as a resource. This approach represents a systemic shift that generates business and economic opportunities, as well as environmental and societal benefits. The circular economy can “close the loop,” and ultimately pave the way toward using less organic resources. As sustainability becomes inherent to companies in the future, the potential benefits of a circular economy are tremendous for the planet, society and businesses.
Organizations across various industries, from textiles to plastics and paper to fashion are seizing the opportunity to go circular by rethinking and redesigning the way they produce, reuse and dispose.
Take the textile industry for example. It is just one major sector in the global economy that has started to move towards a circular model, and for good reason: apparel waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world. By 2030, it is estimated that we will consume 102 million tons of apparel per year, an increase of 63 percent from 2017.1 This factor combined with a very low rate of recycling—less than 1 percent of material used—increases pressure on resources, and has negative effects on businesses’ bottom lines with billions of dollars in value being lost every year because of clothing that is seldom worn and rarely recycled.2
Established fashion brands and small, sustainability focused startups alike have started to recognize that the fashion industry’s footprint could expand to catastrophic proportions if things do not change. To ensure a circular fashion economy, some businesses have been finding solutions across their entire supply chain by radically transforming clothing design, collection and reprocessing. Businesses are doing this through a variety of methods, including investing in the development of renewable fabric materials, increasing clothing use by scaling up short-term clothing rental and establishing used clothing collection systems, transitioning to more efficient production processes, using more recycled content in product designs and collaborating with other businesses to uncover process improvements.
Plastics and Paper
The plastics industry, another industry integral to the global economy, has also started using a circular economy model to combat the high economic and environmental costs associated with the wasteful way plastics have traditionally been used and disposed of previously. For example, most plastic packaging is used only once, and 95 percent of its value (estimated at USD $80 to $120 billion annually) is lost to the economy after its initial use. Given projected growth in production, by 2050, oceans could contain more plastics than fish.3 Businesses are responding to the challenge by improving the design of their products and packaging and delivery models through scaling up compostable packaging, replacing single-use packaging with reusable bulk alternatives, and deploying an adequate collection and sorting infrastructure.
Most discarded paper can be recovered and re-used for recycled paper products and other uses, but poor recycling habits, lack of awareness, contamination due to co-mingled recycling and limited collection infrastructure have proven to be some of the greatest challenges in improving our paper recovery. Some businesses have started leveraging partnerships to implement closed loop recycling systems where post-consumer office paper and corrugate waste is collected, recycled and used to make new products.
Businesses can identify potential partners by building relationships with local government, non-profits and waste collectors who have customers that share the common goal of achieving sustainability. One example of a partnership that developed from a customer relationship involves an aerospace manufacturer, a local distributor and a professional hygiene manufacturer. These partners developed a circular program where the aerospace manufacturer’s office documents were shredded and baled onsite, converted into 100 percent recycled paper towels and bath tissue, and then delivered back to their facility by the distributor, keeping a tight local transportation and environmental footprint.
Ultimately, a partnership like this reinforces that a circular economy can only function properly when businesses, organizations and local communities work together to eliminate waste that may end up in landfills and reclaim valuable materials. It also highlights the benefits of a circular model for the environment, all partners involved and consumers alike: it is an effective and inexpensive solution to getting rid of waste that boosts sustainability, re-purposes recycled materials, and provides transparency and reassurance that products are made responsibly.
Shifting to a Circular Economy
A circular economy presents an opportunity to deliver substantially better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes and will transform the way products are designed, sold, disposed of and reused. However, achieving a circular economy where nothing goes to waste will demand unprecedented levels of collaboration, innovation and new business models. To move beyond incremental improvements and achieve a shift to a new circular economy, a concerted, systemic approach is needed that matches the scale of the challenge and the opportunity.
Carrie Schuster is Brand Communications Manager of Sustainability, Hygiene and Services NA/EU for Essity (Philadelphia, PA), a global leader in hygiene and health, and the makers of the Tork brand of professional hygiene products. She consults with customers to partner and develop programs with the goal of achieving sustainability through zero waste, closed-loop recycling and composting initiatives. Carrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.