Skip to main content

In the Loop

3 circular economy trends that defined 2020

And why these themes will resonate more loudly in the year to come.

circular economy concept

As the year comes to a (welcome) close, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how the circular economy concept has emerged and evolved during this very particular year. Here are three trends that defined the circular economy in 2020, and what they might mean for the year to come. 

1. Reuse is on the rise. Despite some setbacks posed by the pandemic (including misinformation about the safety of reusables peddled by industry lobbying groups), the transition from single-use to reusable packaging is building real momentum. With such proof points as Loop’s continued growth and recent $25 million Series A, Algramo’s New York expansion and the launch of the Beyond the Bag initiative, to name a few, it’s clear that reuse is taking hold at scale. 

In 2021, I’ll be watching CPG and food and beverage companies, which have been scrutinized for one-off pilots and an overall failure to move quickly enough towards commitments to make all packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.

If brands and retailers intend to fulfill their public commitments, we’ll need to see real investment in reuse platforms and systems in the year ahead. 

2. Metrics begin to materialize. This year saw the launch of new tools and standards to calculate and track the circular nature of products, business and systems.

Notably, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development released the Circular Transition Indicators and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Circulytics tool; GRI established a new standard on waste; and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute released the fourth version of its product standard.

The bright and shiny narrative of the circular economy’s promise will lose its luster without verified data and material evidence to show that circular is indeed better, and these tools are a step in the right direction. 

Next year, I expect to see an emphasis on reporting and consistency of data behind various claims, as well as an effort to fold circular economy metrics into existing sustainability and ESG frameworks.

I also will be looking for more actionable datasets and analysis on the link between climate change and the circular economy, and opportunities to mitigate carbon emissions using circular economy strategies. 

3. It’s (still) all about plastic. Plastic continues to be the star of the show when it comes to the global conversation about materials management and circular economy solutions.

The topic is top of mind for most of us given the increased demand for single-use everything amid the pandemic, which has led to a surge in plastic waste entering into waterways and oceans. But this year also offered a collective leveling-up of our data-backed knowledge and understanding about the flows and intervention points that could stem the tide on plastic pollution. 

While source reduction continues to be the No. 1 solution to the global plastic waste crisis, many companies continue to solely address end-of-life management — notably in chemical recycling technologies for plastics packaging and synthetic textiles

2021 is sure to bring continued tension between the problem of plastic waste and the problem of plastic production and use. I’ll be keeping my eye on the policy landscape and the balance between upstream action and accountability alongside downstream solutions.  

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

More on this topic