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6 circular economy trends that will shape 2020

From refill schemes to more practical and viable recycling options, there's a stronger sense of urgency to find solutions.

Circular economy approaches advanced in 2019, particularly for plastics and packaging. The explosion of media interest in the ocean plastics crisis has driven both consumers and regulators to seek action. Companies are responding with new strategies to reduce waste.

"There’s a stronger sense of urgency in the consumer products and retail space to move more aggressively to go after recycled content and to go after a wider variety of solutions," Bridget Croke, vice president of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners, told GreenBiz.

In some cases, it’s a bit of back to the future, with businesses seeking to close the packaging loop with new product delivery models that actually existed a long time ago but now have a modern twist. In other cases, its new, breakthrough technologies for chemical recycling of plastic materials that companies are increasingly getting behind.

Momentum is building, although we’ve still got a long way to go in creating a fully circular economy. Looking to 2020 and beyond, here are six emerging trends to keep an eye on:

1. Policymakers seek to hold producers responsible for waste

The policy landscape focused on end-of-life needs for products picked up in 2019. Although many bills are still in play in the United States, look to 2020 and beyond to see them go into effect.

"It’s a function of the turmoil in the industry and all the plastics challenges," said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industrial collaboration at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that launched the Circular Economy Accelerator this year to advocate policy solutions. 

Companies are also more willing to collaborate on policy now, de Thomas said: "The question is: Is legislation going to be done to them or with them?"

The question is: Is legislation going to be done to companies or with them?
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills that require manufacturers and retailers to contribute to the cost of collecting, recycling and disposing of their products at the end of life or use are making headway in states such as California and Maine. The National Stewardship Action Council, in fact, lists nine states with EPR legislation on specific products such as carpets, drugs and sharps, or on packaging. A federal bill covering EPR legislation was even drafted, aimed at reducing plastic waste.

California’s bills are especially robust and would create a comprehensive regulatory scheme for producers, retailers and wholesalers of single-use packaging and priority single-use products, requiring a 75 percent reduction of such waste statewide by 2030.

Europe and Canada already have EPR systems in place for packaging and goods such as electronics, batteries and cars, but Europe is moving towards "eco-modulation" that ties manufacturer costs for EPR programs to the recyclability or amount of recycled content in packaging.  

2. Companies collaborate to reuse materials and packaging

The groundbreaking Next Gen Consortium — which seeks to create fully recoverable takeout cups — exemplifies how companies are increasingly partnering with supply chain members to solve materials challenges. We should see more such partnerships in 2020 and beyond.

"Businesses are testing things they wouldn’t have been open to a few years ago," Croke said. “We’re seeing folks putting bets in multiple areas. Not just trying to solve the recycling side but also looking at new ways to deliver products that might not include packaging at all." 

"Producers are being stronger partners in the system," agreed de Thomas, who says it’s one thing that excites him most about the future. Companies are better understanding what it means to use recycled content in packaging and ensuring that the packaging they’re making can be recycled, he said.

"Five years ago, it was a challenge to get brands to use the Association of Plastic Recyclers. Design Guide for Recyclability, but now that they’re needing the material from the recycling system, they’re paying more attention to how they put their product out in the marketplace," he said. "Companies are producing better packaging."

recycling items with soda bottles

3. Consumer brands explore refill models

With recycled plastic material meeting only 6 percent of demand today, companies with aggressive commitments to using recycled content in their packaging seek alternative solutions. Increasingly, some companies are testing new refill models that solve for waste and consumer convenience, while ensuring the integrity of the product inside.

Dozens of brands, from Tide to Pantene to Colgate, are partnering with Loop, a global, online shopping platform that uses a closed-loop system for product delivery. Loop, which will ramp beyond its initial markets during 2020, provides products to consumers in durable containers that can be reused multiple times and is driving companies to invest in such high-value packaging.

We’re seeing folks putting bets in multiple areas. Not just trying to solve the recycling side but also looking at new ways to deliver products that might not include packaging at all.
Unilever is testing several refill models, including Algramo, the Chilean startup that refills product by the gram from vending machines. To incentivize reuse, Algramo’s packaging is equipped with radio frequency identity (RFID) chips that track customer use and earn them credit every time they refill the container.

Meanwhile, in the glass market, Conscious Container had developed a refill marketplace for the craft brewing industry. Thus far it’s operating in Nevada and northern California. Reusing, rather than recycling, glass bottles use less energy and improve the economics for materials recovery facilities by reducing the amount of broken glass in the system.  

The refill trend is just beginning; expect more innovation in this space in 2020.

4. Chemical recycling moves closer to commercial scale

Plastics reduction goals set by big companies such as Unilever, Walmart and Nestle are helping to drive progress in the chemical recycling industry. "We’re seeing the first steps into commercial scale in that space," de Thomas told GreenBiz. "I think we’re going to see chemical recycling grow quite a bit in the next few years."

The Closed Loop Fund counts 60 emerging chemical recycling technologies in its report, "Advancing Circular Systems for Plastics."

Chemical recycling breaks down plastics into simple components that have greater value and opportunity for reuse than plastic recycled through mechanical means such as grinding, shredding or re-granulating, which is how the majority of plastic is recycled today. 

Companies, plastic manufacturers and recyclers increasingly seek to partner because of the limited supply of recycled material that’s available at the quality that companies need to use for their packaging. Major brands in the plastics space and supply chain see this as part of the solution and know that they need to invest in it, Croke said. 

But for this trend to take off, companies will need to sign more long-term contracts with chemical recyclers and find creative ways to share risk across the system. 

5. Fast fashion is the new ocean plastics

Consumer and media awareness about the environmental and social problems associated with fashion reached new heights in 2019. The September bankruptcy of Forever 21, a giant in the fast fashion space, sent a clear signal that young, eco-conscious women are turning away from cheap, throwaway clothing. Fast fashion, in fact, may well become the next ocean plastics as the industry comes under increasing pressure to become more sustainable.

Some apparel brands have been working on zero waste, closed-loop designs, such as through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, but they’re still in the early stages of scaling solutions. Adidas, notably, unveiled the first fully recyclable sneaker this year, Futurecraft Loop sneaker, made using a closed-loop design with "infinitely reusable" materials.

The fundamental issue is that if you have toxics in the global economy, when you tighten the loop at the end of the cycle, what are you going to do with all of the legacy toxics?
Beyond zero waste solutions, some emerging approaches to reducing clothing waste include:
  • New brands such as Everlane are creating durable, sustainable fashion — basics that can be mixed and matched to reduce the volume of clothes consumers buy. 
  • Subscription models, such as For Days, allow consumers to buy clothing that the company takes back for recycling when the consumer no longer wants the item.
  • Traditional retailers such as American Eagle, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and H&M are getting into rental clothing, following the lead of startup companies such as Rent the Runway and Le Tote.
  • Cotton recycling initiatives such as Blue Jeans Go Green are providing recycled denim to brands such as Levi's.  

toxic chemicals

6. Tensions rise over toxics

Environmental advocates have long urged greater attention to toxic chemicals in circular economy discussions.

"The fundamental issue is that if you have toxics in the global economy, when you tighten the loop at the end of the cycle, what are you going to do with all of the legacy toxics?" Mark Rossi, executive director of Clean Production Action, told GreenBiz.

More specifically, the Environmental Defense Fund warned in a recent column, "When tainted plastic packaging is reused or recycled these toxic chemicals persist and may accumulate to worrisome levels until the packaging is retired, posing long-term threats to our health."

Researchers have indeed found toxics in many consumer products made with recycled plastics, including children’s toys. But as awareness that PFAS, the "forever chemicals" linked to cancer and birth defects, have been found in food packaging and are likely in the blood of most humans on the planet, tensions over toxics in the circular economy will rise.

In particular, pressure on companies with recycled packaging goals to also set goals for toxics-free packaging, as called for in the New Plastics Economy pledge, may increase.

Furthermore, Rossi warns that pressures may rise in the United States, as they have in Europe, to allow for higher allowances of toxic chemicals in compost or recycled material in order to close the loop on production processes. 

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