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In the Loop

5 expectations for the circular economy in the year ahead

Expectation #1: Circularity will help achieve climate commitments.

Black letter box with the words: Rethink, reduce, refill, reuse, and recycle in white letters

Image from Shutterstock/Netrun78

This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here

Happy new year, dear Circularity Weekly readers! I hope this [article] finds you healthy, happy and well-rested.

To be honest, I personally find myself a bit slow moving in the first week of 2022, feeling more comfortable reflecting on the year past than assuredly facing the year ahead. As we emerge from the fog of an unpredictable year and step into some familiar murkiness, my instinct is to replay encouraging moments and analyze announcements and actions from 2021 — clutching onto a blanket of nostalgia and pressing snooze for five more minutes.

To help me greet the moment, I decided to ask some colleagues about what’s getting them out of bed at the dawn of another year. I reached out to a dozen professionals working across the breadth of the circular economy to share their expectations, hopes and areas of focus for circularity in the year ahead.

Here’s what they told me. (The following quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

1. Circularity will help achieve climate commitments

"The role of the circular economy is becoming more important than ever, especially with the rise in zero waste commitments and climate-related goals we saw announced last year and expect to continue to see in 2022. We know that we cannot meet climate goals through energy transition alone. Forty-five percent of emissions come from the stuff we produce and consume everyday, and the circular economy is the most attractive model to tackle those emissions. In 2022, we anticipate a stronger recognition of the critical link between transitioning to a circular economy and addressing the climate crisis."

45% of emissions come from the stuff we produce and consume everyday, and the circular economy is the most attractive model to tackle those emissions.

– Jessica Long, Managing Director & Chief Strategy Officer at Closed Loop Partners

"I’m anticipating that many more policymakers will realize that they won’t achieve their climate goals without the circular economy, and I am looking forward to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest taking the lead on this. For example, Seattle recently updated its Priority Green Expedited Permitting program for building construction to require information on embodied carbon to qualify."

– Ashima Sukhdev, Climate Mitigation & Circular Economy Policy Advisor, City of Seattle, Seattle Public Utilities

"The phrase 'circular economy' is due for a redefinition and expansion in 2022. As it stands, the conversation currently encompasses a much wider range of topics than strict circularity. What does circular economy mean for food, for example? Or for that most nefarious waste of all, CO2? Embracing a broader definition of 'circular economy' will help catalyze a wide range of important solutions and will make it easier to define their connection to climate impact."

– Katherine Geusz, Director of Programs, Greentown Labs

"With all of the doubling down we saw on net-zero ambitions in 2021, particularly coming out of COP26, I think it’s a great opportunity for circular economy professionals to better explain to the uninitiated that net zero is where the rubber meets the road for circularity to accelerate for corporates and cities. We’re already seeing emissions reduction goals cascade throughout the value chain, one can anticipate or hope circularity criteria and ambition is next up to bat."

– Peter Perrault, Director and Head of Circular Economy, Enel North America

2. Infrastructure will be reimagined

"The circular economy will begin to recognize the failures of recycling, not just the lacking infrastructure but the undeniable effects of entropy as we all eat pounds of plastic over our lifetimes. Not only will we start Designing for Decomposition, but we will wonder why it took us so long to embrace decay as the feedstock for healthy, regenerative growth. We're starting with textiles, but are looking at the food-fiber intersection for change ... because it all has to hit the soil eventually."

– Beth Rattner, Executive Director, Biomimicry Institute

"2022 will be the year where circularity priorities start shifting from recycling to reuse and refill. I'm excited to see what becomes possible when businesses, NGOs and policymakers work together to develop policy approaches that will help create the incentives and infrastructure we need to take reuse approaches to scale."

– John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director, Greenpeace USA

There’s no time to be timid.

3. Policy will be a top priority

"Greater circular economy awareness and commitments have enabled important forums for more substantial, cross-sector discussions and progress. My hope is that those discussions become a more integrated part of the circular economy policymaking process at all levels. It would be a mistake to replace what can and should be a collaborative process with rushed, though well-intentioned, policy that likely creates different problems down the road or is not designed to adapt."

– Erin Hiatt, Vice President, CSR, Retail Industry Leaders Association

"The growing commitment to a circular economy is exciting and exactly what’s needed, but if we don’t get serious about the size of the challenge, the need to accelerate change, and the coordinated effort required for system change, we may all be left frustrated, and the planet left in worse shape than before. That’s why I’m keeping my eye on the connection between corporate commitments and policy, alignment around data-driven decision-making tools like PlasticIQ, and the role of retailers in building consistent approaches. There’s no time to be timid."

Keefe Harrison, CEO, The Recycling Partnership

"Circularity in 2022 must focus on the nexus of circularity, decarbonization and social justice with a focus on mobility and energy sectors. This requires a cross value chain approach that considers circularity at every stage. Key enablers should include policy enablers such as incentives for design for disassembly/recovery of materials, and establishing data governance to enable appropriate data access to drive circularity, verify GHG emission and sourcing of materials consistent with human rights while protecting data security and IP."

– Mathy V. Stanislaus, Executive Director, The Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel University and adviser to the Global Battery Alliance and World Bank's Energy Storage Partnership

4. The investment ecosystem will expand

"There is strong potential for greater crowding in of mainstream capital in 2022. Supported by a strong global focus on ESG investing and better impact measurement tools, a heightened awareness of circular solutions for plastics will start to change mindsets and attract interest from mainstream investors who can provide capital to really fast-track the transition towards circularity."

– Ellen Martin, Chief Impact Officer, Circulate Capital and Director of Impact and Insights, The Circulate Initiative

"There are finally enough companies understanding and committing to circularity to make progress. In the textile and apparel sector, it is imperative for new technology and systems to be established within collecting, sorting and processing to accelerate circularity. In 2022 I anticipate more financial investments in these areas, which will result in expanded collaborations between brands and suppliers."

Tricia Carey, Director of Global Business Development – Apparel, Lenzing Fibers Inc.

5. Technology to enable traceability and transparency and will take center stage

"There’s a seismic shift happening with Web3. Things will be messy — it's the Wild West. I’m interested in use cases for practical circularity applications — linking physical products to digital rewards, to keep products in circulation will be meaningful, and could incentivize climate beneficial actions. The decentralization of investments in products and services, like DAOs, will continue to grow and may eventually upend the entire traditional investment structure but I think we'll see a lot of growing pains first."

– Rachel Kibbe, Founder, Kept SKU

We don’t need blockchain for everything, and we know that every bit and byte of digital information we produce has an associated carbon footprint.

"We expect to see an increased role for science-based, technology-driven innovations in materials management, marrying technology and science to increase supply chain transparency and eliminate waste. In addition to finding ways to improve our current systems of production and consumption, we hope to see the growth of new business models that fundamentally change how we do things; this could be via new models to extend the life of products or through models that change how we interact with products."

– Jessica Long of Closed Loop Partners

"We’re doubling down efforts on things like digital twins for predictive maintenance and asset performance optimization, which increases utilization and output while also promoting lifecycle extension and new lifecycles for assets previously thought to have reached their end of life. Another exciting area with a lot of growth is digital materials passports; the key there is to right size the effort and tech so it is fit for purpose and not overly developed or complicated. We don’t need blockchain for everything, and we know that every bit and byte of digital information we produce has an associated carbon footprint."

– Peter Perrault of Enel North America

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