"Who defines what is waste?" was a powerful opening at the GreenBiz Circularity 21 conference, a three-day event focused on discussing circular economy strategies across consumer packaged goods industries – from food and beverages to electronics, with everything in between. The event featured various panels with topics including materials enabling a circular economy, consumer behavior changes, and financial and regulatory impacts on circularity.
Below are some of the major takeaways from the conference:
1. True circularity will have no beginning or end in the value chain
The opening keynote focused on defining waste and presented the argument that we might have a lot to learn about circularity from developing countries, which are known to downcycle, reuse, and refurbish most waste products. This concept leads to the theme of "one man's trash is another man’s treasure"; this concept is essential for companies to see waste not for what it is but for what it could be. Designing to eliminate waste, recycling waste to new feedstocks, and implementing more refurbishment and reuse can extend the life cycles of products and packaging, which could divert and decrease waste pollution.
One of the tenets of a circular economy is that the loops cannot have a beginning or end – which relies on waste being a feedstock option in more than one way to decrease the actual waste generation from the value chain. There will be little to no waste in a circular economy, as most disposed-of materials and products can be processed back into the value chain. This concept is supported by the idea that the circular economy is not one large global system but instead needs to start with local loops to reuse, repair, and recycle products through secondhand markets and refurbishments to extend product lifetime.
The local loops extend toward the regional level and collectively form a global system. Companies should find methods to start small and aim for forming more regional loops, like Coca-Cola's rPET bottles in select EU countries, rather than targeting a global circular system from the beginning.
2. Educating and engaging consumers is essential
In almost every panel and presentation, speakers reiterated the importance of educating and engaging with consumers and the companies' plans and actions toward this end. At times, the message sounded a bit like a broken record. Still, it is an important reminder that brands and companies will be restricted in achieving circularity without cooperation and buy-in from consumers. The shift toward a circular economy relies on consumers adopting new business models like reusable packaging and moving away from the throw-away culture. Policymakers are stepping up to support corporations with online tools and reducing the use of single-use products through regulations to help consumers learn proper disposal methods and deposit points for a lower barrier for consumers. Earlier this year, France introduced the repairability index tag for all consumer products to make repair and other sustainability practices more evident to consumers to reduce the throw-away attitude.
Another significant issue is the false news and perceptions that companies need to combat, such as most consumers believing that paper is better than plastics for all applications. This issue gets convoluted from consumer perception and leads to greenwashing. Policymakers, brand companies, and nonprofit organizations will need to continue working together to form new and engaging strategies to educate consumers with the correct information on a mass scale. Many at the conference acknowledged the importance of consumer behavior for achieving sustainability goals, but there was no good understanding of how possible it is to change/influence this behavior.
3. Measure accurately to make a change
Several technology developers at the conference highlighted the need for a standard measuring system so companies know what to measure and how and can be comparable to each other. Organizations like Higg, The Recycling Partnership, and the U.S. Plastics Pact all presented their different tools and guidelines for measuring various environmental factors to determine the environmental impact accurately. Higg's presentation revolved around the need to use the language of the different stakeholders in the value chain to engage effectively and use familiar frameworks within businesses to integrate.
Measuring is also an essential tool to enable transparency throughout the value chain. There are no industry standards, and the focus shifts from one factor to another, but companies need to measure all the factors simultaneously to build a complete picture. Transparency will help companies form more comprehensive strategies, work more effectively with the value chain, and build trust among all stakeholders, including consumers.
The conference overall was a great conversation on the principles of a circular economy and strategies for it. The discussions did acknowledge that, hypothetically, all the technologies, innovations, and business models discussed would ideally form a circular economy but rely on uncontrollable external factors, such as regulations and consumer behavior, to actualize. Overall, the discussions at the event were more like a dreamer's guide to circularity, but in the bleak real world, optimism is welcome, especially for an area like sustainability and circularity that is quite convoluted and overwhelming at times.