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Accelerating the Circular Economy

July 1, 2021 | News,

Accelerating the Circular Economy
Takeaways from Greenbiz’s 2021 Circularity conference

From June 13-15th, an Anthesis delegation joined a group of business leaders and experts for discussions on accelerating the circular economy at the annual GreenBiz Circularity conference.  The conference was aptly timed, as July 29th 2021 marks the “Earth overshoot day” when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year is greater than the rate at which the Earth can regenerate those resources. The circular economy and more broadly, sustainable production and consumption has never been more pertinent.

The goals of Circularity include keeping resources in use for as long as possible, to extract the most value while in use and seeking to recover, regenerate, and reuse resources and materials at the end of each service life. The tools, tactics and solutions highlighted during the conference demonstrate that while there is much work to be done, in many ways we already have much of what we need to reduce our reliance on natural resources through action among three key levers/stakeholder groups: policymakers, consumers and businesses.

Here is our roundup of the key themes and takeaways from the Circularity 21 conference.

How to build a comprehensive circular strategy

At the conference we heard from many companies from Philips and Ralph Lauren to Google and TetraPak about the need for embedding circular strategies underpinned by ambitious goals throughout their businesses. Consider this example from Ralph Lauren who is investing in scalable recycling technologies to optimize quality and function. In 2020, Ralph Lauren invested in Natural Fiber Welding that is scaling a new industry standard for natural fiber recycling. As part of this commitment, Ralph Lauren will produce 100% recycled cotton products of the high quality its known for across its portfolio by 2025. Philips has made a commitment to close the loop by offering a trade-in on all professional medical equipment and taking care of responsible repurposing.

A few other key goals emerged:

  • Invest in technology and infrastructure that enables the circular economy. This can range from collection systems for product takeback, to advanced technologies for producing materials from secondary feedstocks
  • Design for circularity (e.g. repairable, upgradable, durable, recoverable) to keep materials and products in use longer. How well are your products designed for end of life recovery of materials and components?
  • Use secondary or regenerative feedstocks and materials
  • Offer circular business models, e.g. trade in/sharing/subscription programs, and close the loop by ensuring circular end of life (e.g. remanufacture/reuse/recycling) for your products.
  • Educate customers about how to reuse/repair/refurbish products and make it easy

Setting packaging goals

Considerations in setting goals include regional vs global goals, regulatory drivers, and the environmental challenges that are most material for your business.

Mechanisms to achieve goals include:

  • Data-driven dashboards and KPIs
  • Tying achievement to variable compensation
  • Making sure sustainability is core to the strategy and embedded in day to day business processes
  • Setting bold, ambitious goals
  • Industry collaboration

David Tulauskas, VP and Chief Sustainability Officer at BlueTriton Brands, shares this advice for goal-setting: “Make sure your goals are within your sphere of influence. Who is involved in achieving the goal? Start with your future vision of the company, then work backwards. For BlueTriton, water and packaging are core issues so that is what we focus on. When forming goals, include all internal stakeholders, stress test with external stakeholders, then develop systems to track progress.”

It is extremely important to know peer goals. We cannot work in silos if want to address issues like climate change or recycling. We need multiple organizations moving forward together.

Luana Pinheiro
Sustainability Transformation Manager – Americas, Tetra Pak

Collaboration is essential

As with sustainability at large, collaboration will enable a circular economy faster. Corporate goal setting can only take a company so far. As David Tulauskas, VP and Chief Sustainability officer at BlueTriton Brands mentioned “Sometimes leaders use goals to create competitive advantages. At some point there is diminishing return on those efforts, and we need to come together and move from competitive advantage to collective advantage.” Knowing and understanding the goals of peers and competitors is the first step in breaking down silos and moving towards greater impact. Voluntary commitments and industry groups are a great way to raise awareness of sustainability issues, promote best practices among companies and move the needle on climate change and resource overdependency.

KPIs and measuring Circularity

While the conference featured an array of Circularity metrics, some were more product-focused and others were focused at the company level, though most considered both inputs (e.g. recycled or biobased content, conservation) and outputs (reusable, recyclable) in some form. ​

A few key standards and tools mentioned:

  • Cradle to Cradle Certified Products – this certification considers materials health, circularity, emissions, water and social stewardship and social fairness.
  • WBCSD Circular Transition Indicators (CTI) – company level circularity metric.
  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circulytics tool – company level circularity metric​.
  • GRI 306: Waste – This standard focuses on the circularity principle of designing out waste. Latest updates cover considerations such as assessing the extent to which waste is recoverable, or the extent to which waste creates a hazard (e.g. marine waste plastic).
  • PlasticsIQ – This tool co-developed by The Recycling Partnership and SYSTEMIQ, with support from Walmart. It requires inputs on mass of packaging by material type, recycled or biobased content, and cost; then allows goal exploration by adjusting actions such as reducing plastic content, increasing recycled/biobased content, switching materials, or using packaging reuse models.


The role of state and federal policy

While companies have a critical role to play, policy serves as another major lever to enable a circular economy. Local and state level policy are highly variable, and strong advocacy and public support is needed to drive further policy action.

The (proposed) Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 2238, S.984), introduced most recently in March 2021is intended to reduce the production and use of certain single-use plastic products and packaging, increase the responsibility of producers in the design, collection, reuse, recycling, and disposal of their consumer products and packaging, and further prevent pollution from consumer products and packaging from entering into animal and human food chains and waterways.

Potentially influential to future regulatory developments, the US Plastics Pact’s  Roadmap to 2025 (released June 15,2021) lays out a distinctive plan to realize a circular economy for plastics by 2025.

At the end of 2020 the USEPA announced a new S. National Recycling Goal – to increase the national recycling rate to 50 percent by 2030.

Final reflection

Circularity as a movement has already come so far in comparison with just a few years ago when it was a relatively new concept still gaining awareness. Now it is a full-fledged discipline, with this conference showcasing a growing range of tools and methodologies, along with the growing capacity of Circularity practitioners now embedded within companies. At the Circularity 21 conference, every session was a testament to the work being done towards advancing a more circular economy. As policy and private sector action continues to advance, we are taking steps towards the model of Circularity that is needed to move the needle in the Decisive Decade.

To learn more about how Anthesis can support your company’s journey towards circularity, visit our dedicated Circular Economy topic webpage

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