Identifying Circular Economy Opportunities

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Earth Day, celebrated by more than a billion people every year on April 22, marks the anniversary of what many consider to be the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Now, nearly 50 years later, the need to mitigate environmental damage is more urgent than ever.

Although society has come a long way in becoming more mindful of our impact on the planet, the average American still produces over four pounds of trash each day, according to the most recent estimates from the EPA. Recent news around the harmful effects of human activity, such as the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch, are also driving conversations around the importance of manufacturing products using post-consumer recycled materials.

SpecificallyChina’s recent decision to restrict the types of recyclables it imports from the US has served as a wake-up call for many consumers and businesses who weren’t previously looking as closely at what happens to their paper after it’s thrown in the recycling bin. The policy banned the import of several categories of solid waste – including scrap plastic and mixed paper – andrestricted the level of contamination in the waste that it does accept. Historically, American recyclers have struggled to mitigate contamination because most consumers use a single-stream recycling program, meaning recyclable metal, plastic and paper waste are all dumped in the same bin. Some critics argue that this system has led to a higher level of contamination and a decrease in the quality of the materials recovered, which makes it more difficult and expensive to recycle the waste into new products. Other programs are fed by sorted office paper, sourced from recycling bins filled with only waste paper – magazines, newspapers, promotional materials, packaging, boxes and office documents.

Fortunately, sustainable businesses have started to recognize recycling more as a key opportunity in building a circular economy.Despite many reports that China’s restriction has caused US recycling efforts to sufferit has also opened the door for investments in circular supply chains. For example, Waste Managementthe largest hauler and MRF operator in North Americaspent $110 million on its recycling infrastructure in 2018 to fund facility investments, collection vehicles and recycling carts. Thisspeaks to the renewed optimism businesses have for product recovery. The opportunity isn’t just good for the environment – it’s good for business. In fact, research shows the circular economy could unlock $4.5 billion of economic growth by 2030.

Investment in recycling innovation is crucial, as it is the keystone in the circular economy. Simply put, the circular economy model transforms the product end-of-life concept by optimizing supply chains to eliminate waste. This cannot be done without recycling.For example, recycled paper is made using products that have were reclaimed after serving their purpose for end-users. Rather than being dumped in a landfill, these materials are turned into new products that are sold on the market, where they can serve a useful purpose to consumers and be recycled again.

Moving beyond recycling, consumers are looking for materials that are renewable and recyclable to minimize their long-term environmental impact. According to the World Economic Forum, consumables in the circular economy are largely made of biological ingredients or “nutrients” that can safely be returned to the biosphere, either directly or in a cascade of consecutive uses. Post-consumer recycled paper is a promising option, as wood fibers can be reused five to seven times as new products. Paper is already one of the most recycled materials on Earth, and this recycled material is reused to make more than half of the world’s paper.

While it’s important for consumers to adopt more sustainable consumption habits, businesses are also responsible for making the sweeping changes to supply chain infrastructure that will empower conservation. As more and more companies look at building sustainability plans, those in the mature stages of their sustainability journey are focusing on closing the loop. Purpose-driven brands should reflect on how their manufacturing processes affect the environment, and how they can create opportunities for stronger recycling in the future.

Renee Yardley

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