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In the Loop

Circularity's potentially planet-saving power

Scaling circularity requires nuanced and complex answers to hard questions.

The inside of a pipe looking out into the sea

Image by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

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

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, I was preoccupied with thoughts about our species’ addiction to consumption. This was fueled by several sights and experiences: an uncharacteristic trip to the mall — an American vestige that has rebounded from its predicted death, and seems to be happily pumping out product once again — the untold cargo ships and boxes along Long Beach’s port whose transit has rebounded from COVID lockdowns and a visit to Disneyland, where nearly every experience is packaged and priced for the consumer.

Beyond the sights, sounds and smells of a 21st century American city, unsettling headlines also kept these thoughts swirling in my brain. In addition to my colleague’s call to prioritize reduction — I couldn’t help but pore over coverage investigating mountains of tossed fast fashion on Ghanaian shores, tons of difficult if not impossible-to-recycle plastics coming off this year’s Halloween candy and an exploding waste-stream of furniture that’s clogging our landfills.

In a world obsessed with selling (and buying) the new, shiny and fun, our ever expanding appetite for more is literally drowning us: More products, more options, more profit margins has led to more cheap, nearly-impossible-to-recycle products and packaging, tossed at an ever increasing clip.

Right now, the planet is bearing the brunt of overconsumption — or perhaps more importantly, overproduction.

In spite of innovations and exceptional efforts — by both committed companies and eco-conscious consumers — trends suggest we continue to consume more and more each year. Something has to give. And right now, the planet is bearing the brunt of overconsumption — or perhaps more importantly, overproduction.

Pondering hard questions

As I often preach from my soap box, circularity has the power to shift this paradigm: Durable, repairable, and modular design decisions can produce products that are long-lasting, rather than short-lived; new business models can decouple production from profit; investment in infrastructure can turn our waste streams into valuable assets. And yet — with a world that is less than 9 percent circular — the circular economy is by no means living up to this potentially-planet-saving power.

And so, with overconsumption and overproduction on the brain, I’ve been ruminating on some hard questions that require nuanced and complex answers:

  • Can we scale circular solutions fast enough to match the urgency of the waste crisis? If we can, what incentive (and punitive?) structures do we need to truly shift the system? What do we do if policy isn’t pushing us far enough, fast enough? And how do we move beyond the one-off circular pilot, and create sector-wide shifts?
  • What will it take to push up the waste hierarchy and actually reduce production? How do we steer the dialogue to enable this and is it time to stop measuring our worth and wealth by growth and GDP?
  • How can the sustainable still be accessible and affordable and how do we ensure marginalized communities don’t bear the brunt of the transition?

In short — how do we truly accelerate the transition to a circular economy?

A call for speakers

I’ll be pondering these thoughts as I build the program for Circularity 23, the leading convening of professionals building the circular economy in June. It’s my hope you’re thinking about — and working to answer — these questions too.

If you have solutions or a fresh perspective on the above quandaries, I invite you to submit a speaker nomination. Our nomination portal will be open through Jan. 9, but as speaking slots fill up fast I encourage you to submit as soon as you’re able. You can also subscribe to event updates here.

I can’t wait to see what ideas you have in store as we take on the hard questions this moment demands. And I can’t wait to see you at Circularity 23 (June 5-7 in Seattle) Until then, I hope you keep asking those hard questions with me.   

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