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In the Loop

3 trends that defined circularity in 2022

Plus, some honorable mentions.

Redwood Materials workers

Lithium-ion battery recycling got a lot of attention in 2022, through federal funding and private partnerships. Image via Redwood Materials.

It’s that time of year again: A time to bust out the string lights, pop the champagne, and don our paper crowns — or whatever festive apparel you fancy. And for those dear readers who get their weekly dose of circular chatter and cheer in the Circularity Weekly newsletter, it’s time for the second annual year-in-review of the Weekly Roundup.

Having regaled you with more than 225 headlines over the past year, I’ve had plenty of fodder, frustrations and fun to reflect on as I consider 2022 — and what a year it's been.

From ground-shifting policy wins — including momentum towards a global plastics treaty, packaging policy at the state and federal level and Right to Repair victories at home and abroad — to tens of millions spent on investments and acquisitions across diverse circular solutions — see here, here, here and here, just to flag a few — this year has been one for the circular ages.

As I retrain my eye on that trusty rear view and contemplate a year of (hopefully humble) hot takes, I’m delighted to share my top three circularity trends for 2022:

1. Circularity heats up in the climate tech sector

As we stare down a tsunami of demand for EVs, solar panels, wind turbines and — by association — critical minerals and metals, a collective epiphany is beginning to take shape: we cannot achieve net zero without circularity.

Critical materials must be recycled and reused if we hope to mitigate destructive mining practices, shore up supply chain resiliency, avert geopolitical headaches, avoid shortages and ensure adequate material supply, full stop — to name just a few motivations. Thankfully, this essential conversation earned our collective attention in 2022.

The chatter was perhaps most cacophonous when it came to lithium-ion battery recycling: The federal government spurred momentum when the Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act to boost domestic critical material supply for EVs — in part through recycling efforts — and the Department of Energy announced plans to unleash more than $3 billion to support and expand domestic battery production and recycling, including $60 million in R&D for second-life sources and $335 million in recycling-enabling competitive grants.

As the world awaits the first wave of EV batteries to reach their end-of-life, some forecast recycling capacity to outpace scrap supply before 2022 comes to a close.

But when it came to throwing money into the battery recycling ring, the public sector wasn’t alone. A flurry of private investments closed out 2021 and spilled into 2022, with battery recycling predicted as the potential "next darling" of the investor community. Private partnerships were also abound, with Redwood Materials arguably stealing the show, having inked deals with a multitude of industry heavyweights including Lyft, Panasonic, Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford and Volvo — but who’s counting?

All this movement led to some remarkable predictions: the lithium-ion battery recycling industry was projected to reach $18.7 billion by the end of the decade and enjoy a tenfold capacity increase by 2025. In fact, as the world awaits the first wave of EV batteries to reach their end-of-life, some forecast recycling capacity to outpace scrap supply before 2022 comes to a close.

But the enthusiasm and action weren’t contained to just one climate tech sector.

Circular buzz had its day in the sun when a predicted tidal wave of photovoltaic (PV) panel waste led to much foreboding and — subsequently — the calamity was downgraded, thanks to panel-life extension. In preparation for retiring PVs, industry experts acknowledged the need for standards and expanded policy while startups — such as Solarcycle — raised millions and announced industry partnerships of their own.

And the promise of circularity was blowing in the wind when the world's first recyclable wind turbine blade began spinning off the coast of Germany, and the ZEBRA (Zero wastE Blade ReseArch) consortium produced a fully recyclable wind turbine prototype.     

We still have a long way to go towards a circular economy for critical materials and the renewable energy infrastructure that relies on them, but I’m heartened to see this essential challenge is finally earning our attention.

2. Recycling commitments and schemes stumble under scrutiny

Abysmal headlines throughout the year dished out failing grades for a variety of packaging commitments and recycling schemes, casting doom and gloom on industry’s voluntary attempts to solve the plastic waste crisis.

One often touted badge of pride is a 2025 packaging commitment to be 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable — in fact, one-fifth of all plastic packaging produced globally comes from companies with such commitments. It’s a topic my colleagues and I have watched closely — and with increased scrutiny — as 2025 barrels closer.

As it turns out, our trepidation has been warranted as a report released this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) predicted most companies will "almost certainly miss" their 2025 packaging goals.

But the proverbial hot water didn’t stop there: The Alliance to End Plastic Waste’s commitment to divert and recycle 9 million tons of plastic was reported to have reached just .04 percent of its goal, three years into the five-year target — leading some to roll out the new, scathing term "greencrowding." And our neighbors to the north found themselves in the hot seat when Canada’s ambitious aspirations to eliminate plastic waste by 2030 was predicted to be missed by more than 2 million metric tons of waste.

Closeup of escalator with a pile of plastic bottles at the factory for processing and recycling.

Image via Shutterstock/Alba_alioth

Meanwhile in the United States, recycling rates for PET and HDPE were disparaged — falling well below the 30 percent threshold required to be deemed "recyclable," according to EMF’s standards — and nationwide plastic recycling rates dropped close to if not below 5 percent, a stark fall from the still meager 9.5 percent recycling peak of 2014.

Perhaps the highest level of criticism and critique fell to difficult-to-recycle plastics’ schemes —  including soft and flexible packaging — when the Flexible Packaging Fund failed to make a single payment; Unilever’s attempted plastic sachet chemical recycling plant shuttered; and two exposés tracked soft- and difficult-to-recycle plastics that entered recycling bins, only to be burned, landfilled or shipped abroad.

For those with commitments, uncomfortable truths are piling up. The most essential for us to face is that recycling cannot get us out of the waste crisis — in fact, some argue recycling as a solution is a myth. I hope we spend next year focusing more of our collective money, efforts and commitments on the other Rs — reduce and reuse.

3. Resale starts to share the spotlight

It’s no secret that resale has proven the darling of the circular community. In 2021 it earned my nod as a top trend, and in 2022 it continued to steal headlines and hearts.

But all this attention has led to increased speculation: can this new business model deliver on sustainable benefits? Or is it simply enabling overconsumption, and failing to shift business models — particularly when it comes to fast fashion?

Given all this questioning commentary, I was heartened to see other business model innovations gain some glory this year.

When it came to apparel, repair, rental and refurbishment started to gain notable traction: piloted repair services enjoyed overwhelming demand at Uniqlo's flagship store; Timberland introduced refurbished products through Timberloop; and U.K. department store Selfridges committed not just to resale, but also repair, rental and refills — leading to the repair of more than 28,000 items in a year.

In the world of electronics, Big Tech began to change its tune on repairability while refurbishment and rental proved more palatable than expected: Apple and Samsung launched self-repair services, Microsoft and Vodofone linked emissions savings to repair offerings, Walmart Restored began offering refurbished electronics to the masses and the Berlin-based, electronics-rental startup Grover saw an impressive $330 million investment.   

Last — but certainly not least — the steady march of reusable-packaging-progress continued in stride: Seattle raised our collective ambition as it advanced a city-wide reuse system; some of my favorite reusable packaging startups enjoyed notable investments; the U.S. Plastics Pact launched a Catalyst program to give reuse a boost; and pilots bubbled up from the likes of Starbucks and Walmart, amongst others. Even Coca-Cola and PepsiCo got on the reuse train with their own reusable packaging commitments.

While these models still sit in the shadow of their more popular cousin, I have hopes that the tides are turning. Perhaps all business innovation boats will be lifted in 2023.

The honorable mentions

In a year so full of headlines and hot-takes, I’d be remiss not to share the runner ups for a trend-filled year. Bringing up the rear, here are my honorable mentions for 2022:

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