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In the Loop

5 circular economy questions for 2021

Along with some predictions about the answers.

Concentric circles

As I begin to think about the year of content and coverage ahead, I thought I’d start things off by sharing some big questions I’ll be asking in 2021 — plus some predictions on how they might be answered.  

1. Will companies align circular economy initiatives with climate goals, or continue to treat these as discrete initiatives? 

Prediction: To date, only a handful of companies (and countries) have meaningfully harmonized circular strategies and climate commitments, presumably given the newness of these programs and the complexity of calculating impacts of new models on carbon emissions. I foresee an increase in the research, tracking and reporting on environmental impacts of circular business models (resale, repair, rental, product-as-a-service), and an increased focus on leveraging circular strategies to achieve climate goals.  

2. What role will communities and justice play in the conversation about the circular economy?

Prediction: A lot. Building on the foundation of environmental justice work in communities across the world, equity and impact will be at the center of how companies and cities alike consider the opportunities of a circular economy. For cities, circular economy initiatives will be used to drive economic equality and create jobs; and for companies, the same scrutiny used to assess upstream supply chains will be applied to downstream value chains. 

3. What role will bioplastics and other bio-based materials play in the shift away from nonrenewable materials for packaging and products? 

Prediction: Biomaterials will be a hot topic in 2021 as companies seek alternatives to virgin plastics and race towards 2025 goals. A polarizing subject, biomaterials will be assessed through a more holistic lens and will scrutinize upstream implications including food security, deforestation and petroleum-based fertilizers — plus end-of-life management woes. A greater emphasis will be placed on the distinctions between biomaterials and appropriate use cases for each. 

4. Will companies scale reuse models, or focus on smaller-scale pilots? 

Prediction: As I shared in my 2020 reflections, reuse continues to gain momentum and attention — and for good reason. I foresee a continued rise in reusable packaging models, although more so in numbers of players than in scale of their programs. More localized, smaller-scale startups will jump on the scene, although truly comprehensive models at scale will remain elusive. 

5. Will the incoming Biden administration have any impact on progress towards more circular systems? 

Prediction: Given last week’s news, I’m more optimistic than ever about the possibility of federal action on plastic pollution and an increased investment in recycling infrastructure — but I’m not holding my breath on sweeping legislation on plastics production in 2021. However, independent of federal policymaking, compliance will play a growing role in corporate action on materials as NGOs hold companies accountable for state-level shortcomings. 

What questions are you asking and answers are you seeking in 2021? I invite you to drop me a note at [email protected] with questions or proposed answers for the year ahead. 

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