When it comes to advancing a circular economy, innovators are working around the world with these three principles in mind — design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
During GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 21, multiple examples of this were discussed on the main stage. There were the giants Amazon and Apple. And there were the startups that competed during the Accelerate competition. But behind the scenes, there are even more people doing this important work, including the Circularity 21 Emerging Leaders, a group of 12 students and early-career professionals looking to drive the transition to a circular economy.
One of those Emerging Leaders is Arnaldo Perez-Negron, founder of zerodelivs, a zero-waste delivery service startup that is looking for investment to scale. (And he happened to connect with a VC in his city during a networking break at the virtual event.)
"It's very exciting stuff. It's hard. It's very difficult. It's a lot more complicated than I ever imagined … but it's a problem that I want to solve, and that's why I'm tackling it," Perez-Negron said during one of the post-event discussions.
After each day of Circularity 21, the event’s cohort of Emerging Leaders gathered to discuss their takeaways and learnings from the day's keynotes and breakout sessions.
In addition to discussing general perceptions, during the last day’s discussion, we zoomed out a bit, and I asked them what makes them excited about the circular economy as a whole and how they see their own work contributing to its acceleration.
Below are excerpts from our post-event conversation — along with written responses for Emerging Leaders who weren’t able to attend the discussion. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Sustainability and Resiliency Specialist, Pinellas County in Florida; CEO/Founder, Zerodelivs
This whole concept of the circular economy is what got me into sustainability. I studied biomedical sciences for my bachelor's degree. I even competed once to try to make a gamified recycling bin and stuff like that. So getting rid of plastic was like my gateway drug into sustainability. So I stayed with it, and I completely changed careers. And that's why I did my master's in environmental management and policy.
I was honestly really inspired at [Circularity 21]. And I loved the innovation part of it like [during the Accelerate pitch session] with that company called Made of Air. Like, what? It's just mind-blowing stuff. Also, from the reusable packaging session called From Pilot to Scale, there was Tom Szaky there from Terracycle and Loop. One thing Tom said that kind of fueled me — that unfortunately, the current gold standard of convenience is throwing things away. So all of us in this field need to find really innovative ways of replacing that and meeting that current gold standard of convenience if we really, really want to see a future circular economy. So I think it's very possible. I'm personally working on it.
Change Agent Fellow, Black Girl Ventures; Chief Plastic Officer, Precious Plastic Cincy
Over the last year, I've been reading and on YouTube and trying to learn more. And I feel like I have more understanding of the methodologies and all of that, but I don't think I knew there were people actively working on this who work at large corporations. And you hear — I think it's just marketing — you hear about carbon capture and insert buzzy, climate tech here. But there are some truly practical solutions people were talking about. So it's like, "Oh, wait, I found my people." And there's people to go along with all I've been learning. But on top of knowing the work is there, I found people working in this space and like-minded people who actually want to have conversations about solutions, rather than just "Oh, yeah, I met you at a conference. See you next year." I've met a lot of people; I'm planning to meet up with them in the next two weeks.
Analyst, Lux Research; Contributor, Accelerating Materials Innovations team
The circular economy cannot just be this one global big thing — it needs to be smaller loops, and the local and regional levels that come together to build a global circular economy system almost has to be the system. And it was really interesting that a lot of the discussions through the event as well talked about the localization of innovation, localization of things like repair and recycling, to integrate the circular economy into the communities more and into cities, rather than thinking about countries and regions and continents. And so I think that the circular economy system really has a strong chance of starting and then growing, when it does start on those local levels, and starts off small, starts off with those measurable and immediately notable changes, so that people can get excited by it and kind of then progress towards those bigger, more disruptive changes.
Founder, Huri Movement
For me, getting into this field was [about] being able to look at everyone from an equitable stakeholder perspective, being able to actively involve people. And I always like to look at it as beginning with the end in mind. That's what really got me fascinated with this industry. That's what that means: asking the questions that most people sort of overlook. That's what really allowed me to open up my eyes and say, "What can we really look towards in terms of resilient infrastructure?" Bringing it back to what [keynote speaker] Catherine Coleman Flowers mentioned. That's what really drives me. That's my passion. That's my why. Being able to ask these questions, but most importantly, actively involving communities that are left out. I think the future of circular is bright, just as long as you remember that we have a responsibility for generations we haven't seen. And as long as we can do that, and continue having conferences like this that give actionable steps towards what's next, I think the sky's the limit and we need to keep this going.
Incoming graduate student, Northwestern University; Research Assistant, Kellogg School of Management
The concept of a circular economy is exciting to me because of its impact potential on a corporate level. I'm sure we've all seen that statistic that almost two-thirds of GHG emissions are produced by just 100 companies. Ideally, you'd want them to reduce their environmental impact because it's the right thing to do but that isn't always the case. However, using principles from the circular economy, we can make a compelling business case for sustainable practices and create a resilient system while being more profitable overall. It's an amazing opportunity for economic and sustainable development. To work towards this goal, I'm going to graduate school. I'll be attending Northwestern University to obtain my Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability. I'm planning on concentrating in sustainable economics, so I can learn more about implementing circular economic principles across a variety of industries.
Policy Analyst, Environment and Climate Change Canada
I come from a policy perspective, when looking into circularity. [Thinking about the] keynote talk with George Bandy from Amazon ... when we're looking at a company like Amazon, that does have the investment, infrastructure and ability to make substantial change in its circular strategy and supply chain, I think for me that session really just outlined the importance of investment leading towards more value add in a circular infrastructure, and ensuring that companies like Amazon are with us through the process as we try to develop what the future circular economy will look like.
How that relates to the work I do — right now, we're really focused on trying to see what we can do in our hottest emitting sectors to get to net zero. And part of that is building up our circular economy, if that's waste reduction, or looking to industries and seeing what we can do to reduce single use of various materials or plastics and whatnot. For me, this whole conference has been really eye-opening, and I got some ideas going in terms of how creative entrepreneurs, at the end of the day, want to commit to making impactful change towards our larger, sustainable and climate change objectives. So if anything it's supplied me with a wealth of knowledge on how we become more critical as we continue to develop policies as we work towards net zero and our circular future.
Graduate, Parsons School of Design, The New School; Assistant Account Executive, Edelman
One of the sessions that I really loved was habits and hooks ensuring consumer engagement. That was a really interesting one because they really focused on saying: It's not just about the technical, but it's also about storytelling and consumer engagement, and how the circular economy can't really happen unless the individual plays an active role. All parties have to kind of participate. You can tell someone to recycle or participate in a take-back program, but it's really about how you are going to tell the story and communicate this message to them that they should and how they should. I thought that was a really crucial part [along with] consumer engagement and just how we can encourage the individual to participate in circular initiatives.
MBA in Sustainability; Intern, Circular Value Chain Management and Commercial Operations, Signify
I'm actually taking an economics class right now. And so it was really interesting to approach this, essentially comparing the neoclassical approach of economics, which is like "profit is king," and then looking at a newer framework that's being developed before our eyes.
When I started the class, I had actually mentioned to my professor my interest in the circular economy. And he has his Ph.D. in economics, and he said that [the circular economy] in his opinion is "all bark, no bite" because there's a lot of people talking about what needs to be done, but not really how it has to be done. That took me by surprise because with my engineering background, I understood fundamentally why this was necessary. In the design stage, I know exactly where we can kind of plug some of this in, but then hearing an economist’s perspective made me nervous entering this conference, because I'm like, "Wow, is this really like all bark, no bite?" But luckily, a majority of the sessions had the technical aspects being highlighted and showing that it has to be an integrated process for [the circular economy] to really take off. We can't just talk about this from a business perspective without understanding the finite resources that we're dealing with.
Masters Student, Regenerative Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan
What really excites me about the circular economy is basically the idea around making use of what we already have, which was actually my takeaway from this whole experience. There was a lot of emphasis on reusing or trying to repair what we already have on the ground or even taking inspiration from nature, mimicking nature.
For example, what Spintex is doing — imitating the mechanism from studying the spider and using that to create materials that can be used in the fashion industry. And talking about the fashion industry, having worked in the fashion industry for over a year and seeing how the processes from the design team, to the manufacturers, and creating samples and prototypes, and seeing how much waste is being generated … that was actually what drew my attention to the concept of sustainability and the importance of creating a circular economy. Having that in mind, I feel it's very important for us to be able to innovate new ideas on how we can make use of what we already have and utilize that. And also think of how we can build upon that to create things that can sustain us longer without causing more harm to the environment.
Recent BS in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability; Consultant, Circular Economy Projects, Plant Chicago
I loved the concept of endineering. And I think it's really true that a lot of our products today, and the overuse of resources and large amounts of waste is because we don't really design for the end. We don't consider what would happen within the infrastructures that we have.
Recent UCLA graduate; Intern, Partnership and Sustainability, Patch
[Editor’s note: Wu is referring to a breakout session that touched on the potential global treaty on plastic pollution.] One of the speakers mentioned the Montreal Protocol and the banning of DDT [dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, a synthetic insecticide]. And it is really awesome to hear him say that because those were turning points in our path towards a better climate. And I think that thinking about plastics, and what could potentially happen on a global level to eradicate this issue, is really exciting in the same way that we worked together to close the ozone hole. And we worked together to ban DDT and all these kinds of things. So the fact that people are working on it already, and that there are such inspiring people making these decisions now, is really awesome, because it kind of gives me hope that maybe when we're all in the midst of our careers, maybe we won't have such massive issues to deal with. And maybe it will be better than it is now.
Ph.D. Student, Innovation Fellow, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College; Internet, Sustainability, Stanley Black & Decker
My research focuses on enabling the integration of sustainability in industry product development practice. I build methodological frameworks and computational tools to help tailor various sustainable design strategies (including circularity) to a company’s context, goals and workflow.
"What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?" Michael Braungart in this quote sums up the immense potential we hold to make life better for ourselves and for the planet, if we commit to changing the way we currently do things.
The circular economy to me is a key avenue to achieve this vision of a greener, safer and more harmonious planet. I believe that we need a diverse coalition of people to solve the complex climate challenges that lie ahead.