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Challenges and Opportunities for the Coming Circular Economy

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jul 11, 2021

For most homeowners, separating your trash into different bins is a typical daily chore. We hope that sending our organic waste to a backyard compost and ensuring that all recyclable products get put in the correct container is a concrete contribution to a better, greener world. Unfortunately, dealing with waste streams is not so straightforward. In 2018, the US generated 292 million tons of municipal solid waste. Even though city recycling programs are continuously growing, the waste we generate continues to grow by around 20 million tons each year. Then, factor in the additional 230 million to 530 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris each year. It quickly becomes apparent that more drastic solutions are needed if we are to approach the idea of a Zero Waste society.

Garbage Bag

If this weren't sufficient cause for concern, in 2018, China banned importing most plastics and other materials headed for that nation's recycling processors. Before that date, the world sent almost half of our recyclable waste to China for recycling. China's refusal to accept our waste has essentially shut down many municipal recycling plants in the US. Many cities stopped receiving certain types of plastics that are hard to recycle. Philadelphia, like many other metropolitan areas, resorted to burning the vast majority of its recyclables. This practice only further increases air pollution in urban areas.

One professor who studies the recycling industry determined that in the next decade, up to 111 million tons of plastics will need to find new processing facilities or disposal sites due to the Chinese ban. Given the challenges to the municipal recycling programs that many of us have come to depend on, might there be a more holistic solution to confronting the issues that result from our waste streams?  

What is the Circular Economy? 

The circular economy is defined as a model for production and consumption that utilizes sharing, leasing, reuse, repair, refurbishing, and the recycling of existing materials and products for as long as possible. All of these choices will allow the life cycle of products to extend almost indefinitely. The circular economy attempts to design waste out of our economic systems by keeping materials within the economy whenever a product reaches the end of its useful life.

The Circular Economy Symposium organized by the Change Now Conference brought together some of the leading business professionals and experts to share their views on the challenges and opportunities of the circular economy. 

The symposium began with a chat with Antoine Arnault, the CEO of Berluti and the heir to LVMH, which represents 75 brands of distinguished, high-quality luxury products in six different industry sectors. Contrary to popular opinion, Arnault states that luxury products are compatible with the circular economy due to their durability. Whereas much of our economy is burdened by "planned obsolescence" and throw-away products, Arnault has worked with the LVMH brands to help design high-end, durable products that are environmentally and socially responsible. "My job (with LVMH) is to make sure we work towards greater awareness and greater accountability related to caring for nature and (combatting) climate change," he says. "This affects everything from how brands select raw materials to how we manufacture our products."

Arnault believes that the circular economy model can reconcile the protection of natural resources with sustainable economic growth. "Our products are highly dependent on nature, and our responsibility is to give back to nature what we borrow from it, thus enhancing the sustainability of these products," he says.

Sorted Recycling

A Few of the Challenges with the Current State of the Recycling Industry

Designing and creating durable products from natural materials sourced responsibly is undoubtedly one aspect of the circular economy. However, Tom Szaky of the waste management company TerraCycle believes finding ways to utilize the waste we create effectively is challenging. "Our challenge is to create circularity by recycling everything that is out there," Szaky says.

To do this, we need to look at the economics of the recycling business. "What makes something recyclable is basically if a waste management company can make money off of it," Szaky admits. This economic equation needs to look at the costs of logistics and processing the waste material. For something to be recycled, these two costs need to be surpassed by a resulting material that is more valuable.

Besides the Chinese ban on importing recyclables, Szaky also looks at other challenges to the economic case for recyclables. To save money and respond to consumer demand for less packaging waste, many companies are packaging their products in thinner plastics that are harder to recycle. Similarly, many manufacturers who want to incorporate recycled content into their products look to purchase the same type of materials. "The problem is that everybody wants the same type of recyclable materials such as plastic bottles," Szaky states. "But what about the lower quality outputs? How can we design products to embrace the waste that is out there and that reflects the price that has to be spent?"

Innovative Trends in the Circular Economy

To help create answers to these questions, Szaky focuses on assisting companies in finding ways to recycle everything, including dirty diapers. One development that gives him hope is the increased interest in retailers wanting to be part of the recycling process. He mentions the chain store Target example. They allow customers to bring in their used child car seats and other large and hard-to-recycle products that they had previously purchased at the store. 

Loop Kroger
Photo Credit: Kroger + Loop

How Could the Construction Industry embrace the Circular Economy?

In the case of the building industry, it would be a significant advancement to see companies like Lowe's, Home Depot, and others offer this sort of in-store recycling. With this setup, homeowners and contractors might be able to take items such as their used wooden flooring, used furniture, and other "casualties" of a home renovation to give these products a chance to be refurbished, reused, or recycled.  

Szaky also thinks that moving beyond recycling towards "reuse" is another step in the right direction. Szaky is the driving force behind Loop, a company helping influential brands shift to reusable packages. With Loop, consumers pay a refundable deposit for each package, use the products, and then throw the empty containers into a Loop tote. The reusable packaging is then sent back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and refilled.

The Loop packaging is not the consumer's property but rather the property of the company. "It feels like disposability but is reusable," he says. Szaky believes that convenience is one of the most critical elements to consumers. If there is a way to return the reusable packaging in a simple and straightforward way, most consumers would be on board with this process.


Packaging and the Construction Industry 

Though packaging waste is often associated with grocers and other businesses within the food sector, the construction and home improvement industries also generate enormous packaging waste. According to one estimate, every year, 150 million plastic sealant and adhesive cartridges end up in landfills. Encouraging home improvement stores to adopt reusable packaging is one way to advance towards a circular economy model.

Lastly, encouraging companies to offer end-of-life recycling services for the products they sell is another way to advance towards a zero-waste future. Laure Babin is the founder and CEO of Zeta shoes. This shoe manufacturer specializes in making shoes from primarily recycled materials. Besides creating market demand for recycled plastics, the company is also furthering the circular economy agenda by offering their customers an easy recycling strategy. "We wanted the shoes to be recyclable until the end; we didn't want it to be additional waste," Babin says in a recent interview. "Customers are offered to return them to us free of charge for a good purchase when worn. We will collect them to send them to the company Gebetex, in Normandy, responsible for recycling them into green fuel. They will be crushed with other textile waste. We wanted to anticipate the end of the product's life as much as possible."

Imagine if home improvement stores, furniture outlets, and every other type of company that manufactures products for your home offered a similar opportunity. Though there are undoubtedly several challenges to the widespread adoption of a circular economy model, it is encouraging to see steps in the right direction.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-12T15:08:39+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.