If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Recycling alone is not the circular economy.
Once we agree on this, we can focus on innovative solutions in material and product design, safer chemistry, new business models, remanufacturing, and refill and reuse. This is why the Circularity team is always looking for creative upstream solutions and why we are fans of Upstream Solutions.
Upstream is a nonprofit think/do tank that works to "spark innovative solutions to plastic pollution by helping people, businesses and communities shift from single-use to reuse," according to its website. Its work spans policy, business engagement, community action, research and media. For those of you (unlike me) who don’t already have too many podcasts to listen to, Upstream also produces The Indisposable Podcast. I recommend you give it a listen.
Because the Circularity team at GreenBiz is full of fanboys/fangirls of Upstream’s work, we are very excited to partner with the organization this year to host a screening of its third annual Reusies awards at Circularity 23. The Reusies celebrate innovations in reuse by companies large and small and by individuals and communities working to make reuse a reality. Nominations for the award are open through Feb. 24, so make sure to enter your favorite reuse solutions before the deadline.
To learn more, I reached out to Matt Prindiville, CEO and chief solutioneer at Upstream, to ask him some questions about Upstream’s work and the Reusies. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
Jon Smieja: Let's start with a big question. Why reuse and not the 100-plus other topics you could work on in sustainability and the circular economy?
Matt Prindiville: Four years ago, [Upstream] did a landscape assessment of the plastics and circular economy space, and our analysis showed there were three big trends.
First, plastic pollution was creating significant risk for consumer brands. The public concern and outcry had become a game changer. But with all the attention paid to the problem, there wasn’t enough focus on how we solve it at scale — and what were the truly transformational solutions versus ones that sounded good but didn’t hold up under closer inspection.
Second, China’s decision to no longer accept low-value mixed recyclables upended the economics of recycling in the U.S. Cities that were used to making a little bit of money on recycling low-value mixed plastics were suddenly having to pay a lot of money — more than disposal — to have them hauled away.
And third, half measures and false solutions were proliferating. With all the attention paid to single-use plastics, many companies started offering or promoting other single-use products and materials as replacements. But when we looked at the life-cycle assessments of these alternative materials and products, we realized that you were just trading one set of environmental problems for others. You might not have plastic in the environment, but now you’ve got greater climate pollution or something else.
Through this exploration, we realized that the real game changer was packaging reduction — getting people what they want without all the waste. So we went all-in.
Smieja: Tell us a bit more about Upstream? What is the vision of the organization, and how are you working to move the needle on reuse?
Prindiville: At Upstream, we help leaders ideate, accelerate and scale circular strategies that create thriving communities and build the reuse service infrastructure of tomorrow. More specifically, our vision is for 30 percent of consumable goods to be sold in reusable formats in the U.S. and Canada by 2030. We know that building and scaling a new reuse economy will require a wholesale shifting of supply chains for consumable goods and services from the current single-use paradigm to new reuse service models. Our core roles are as conveners and bridge builders, content creators and knowledge curators, and solutions ideators and catalysts. Ultimately, our goal is to support our growing community and the broader movement in getting reuse to scale.
Smieja: Amazing. Reuse is such a critical piece of the circular economy puzzle. Okay, let's get to the Reusies. 2023 will be the third annual awards. Where did the idea for a reuse awards show come from?
Prindiville: The idea came to us back in the fall of 2020. My colleague Julie [Lamy] and I were sitting outside in the cold on my back porch co-working at a distance. We were lamenting about how hard the reuse companies were getting hit with the pandemic shutting down a lot of their operations. We talked about the need to uplift and help raise the profile of this emerging sector, and Julie said, "What about an awards show?" And I laughed and said, we could call it "The Reusies" — just making fun. After another good laugh and some more conversation, we realized that we had something here, but we needed a high-profile partner that could really elevate the idea and get companies excited to participate. So we pitched Closed Loop Partners, and fortunately for us, they said yes. They’ve been amazing partners in co-producing the event. That’s where the idea came from, but it’s really been the incredible team of event producers, videographers, and our hardworking staff that have made it all possible. It’s our love letter to the reuse movement.
Smieja: I'd love to hear a bit about a past winner or two. What are you looking for in reuse innovations?
Prindiville: The biggest thing we’re looking for are ideas that can scale — especially in the different sectors that are most ripe — like food service, beverage and consumer goods. There are a number of winners that we’re really excited about like r.Cup in the food service sector and The Rounds in enabling technology.
With the corporate initiative award, we also want to acknowledge corporations that are making strides to prioritize and implement reuse. We want to support the companies that are doing the kinds of things that we want others to replicate. For example, last year’s finalists were Coke for being the first to make a major corporate commitment that has an actual reuse/refill target with a specific date; Pepsi’s SodaStream acquisition as a reflection of the company's ambitions toward reuse solutions; and Kroger’s partnership with the CPG reuse/refill service Loop, which ultimately won the award. Kroger is Loop's first brick-and-mortar retail launch in the United States, piloting in 25 Fred Meyer stores in the Pacific Northwest. Loop has been the original CPG innovator pulling in Fortune 500s, and according to them, the Kroger partnership is their most impactful partnership to date.
Smieja: Last question for you, Matt. What innovations are you looking for in Reuse that we're currently missing? Asked another way, what are you looking forward to in the next couple years in this space?
Prindiville: From our perspective, infrastructure unlocks everything and the big strategic questions are around:
- Design. What does it look like? What needs to happen to make it happen? What are the phases of development?
- Financing. How much does it cost? Who pays for which part?
Businesses need to collaborate with each other to build the infrastructure for pooled reuse systems — many companies; few collection and washing platforms — to work, and scale requires pooling investment to align stakeholders, capital, investment and policy behind large-scale projects in cities and regions in the U.S.
Fortunately, the landscape over the last several years has changed. First, most consumer brands have signaled support for extended producer responsibility and deposit return systems, and many have now piloted reuse systems in food service, beverage and consumer packaged goods. Second, many NGOs and large-scale institutions have or are developing reuse initiatives. Third, there are big opportunities at the state and federal levels, and lots of interest in city policy. Last, there are dozens of reuse service companies operating throughout North America — possibly nearing 100.
The sea change is that the private sector is now engaged. But we know we’re working to co-create a future that doesn’t exist yet. There has to be ideation, experimentation and alignment around strategies to get us there.