Humankind itself doesn’t cause climate change. Rather, it’s the way it relates to nature. Indigenous practices, for example, have long sustained balance between human development and nature’s activities. However, on the road to industrialization, advancements that increased productivity disrupted that balance, including many linear (take-make-waste) practices that drive climate change.
With the urbanization and the formation of cities, demands on these improved systems only increased. The breakthroughs in mass production, material sourcing and transportation that significantly and efficiently cut the time, money and human labor needed to produce and distribute goods allowed for wide and surged consumption of commodity items.
This came to a head in the 1950s, when the appetite for convenience, lowered costs and a culture of consumerism really took off. When single-use and disposability (specifically of plastic, a synthetic material nature cannot absorb) exploded to enable fast-moving, on-the-go lifestyles, recycling and reintegration of material did not keep pace.
As a result, about 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, and more than 300 million tons are produced each year. At best, 9 percent of all plastic ever made has been recycled. The rest has been landfilled, incinerated or littered; these practices generate billions of tons of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
Cities, with growing populations and demands on resources, exacerbate the waste crisis and may be a key focus area to help change course away. Cities occupy just 3 percent of the Earth’s surface but house more than half of the world’s population, consume over 75 percent of global resources, and generate 60 to 80 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Urbanization is only increasing, with 70 percent of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050.
Cities, with growing populations and demands on resources, exacerbate the waste crisis and may be a key focus area to help change course away.
With this, cities are also at the forefront of suffering from its scale. Waste management systems fail to meet need in developed and underdeveloped markets alike, overwhelmed by cost and insufficient infrastructure. Public health and safety are huge issues where this is especially lacking, contributing to the ongoing impacts on air, water, soil and overall quality of life for residents.
Reuse and durability-based systems may provide unexplored pathways to address these challenges with positive economics; reuse systems are estimated to present a $10 billion business opportunity if only 20 percent of single-use packaging today were converted, creating jobs, cutting costs of managing waste and litter and driving value with new revenue streams.
Where business goes, change tends to come, but strong support from city functions is essential to driving reuse forward. For example, the Tokyo Metro Government (TMG) was absolutely instrumental to the successful launches and expansions for our Loop reuse platform in Japan. Involved in promotion at the early stages, the city helped fund pilot testing and consumer surveys in our reusable bento lunch containers project.
With their own commitments to circular economy and waste reduction targets, TMG aligns business with the environment, and is even attracted to the fact that our platform engages competing brands. Building upon the existing long-term relationship with TerraCycle Japan through recycling programs with municipalities and schools, the clear and consistent support from the start afforded credibility and footing for the platform in a new market.
As the governor of the city of Tokyo stated in a recent press conference, "Large cities in developed countries such as Tokyo can make a significant impact on the global economy by playing a leading role," noting reuse was standard in the region for glass bottles for beer, sake and more just 30 years ago.
Cities are complex ecosystems in themselves, so a "buy anywhere, return anywhere" ecosystem for reusables that makes it easy for consumers to access, businesses to sell and cities to benefit from is as much a feat of design as a reimagined container or durable package. This is a top priority for Loop as we expand to new markets and optimize our offerings.
Today for grocery we have Aeon in Japan, Tesco in the United Kingdom, Carrefour in France and Walgreens and Kroger’s Fred Meyer banner coming soon in the United States, and the biggest names in QSR (quick service restaurant): McDonald’s was the first to pilot the model in select stores in the U.K., followed by Tim Horton’s in Canada, then Burger King in several countries in the coming months.
With so much ground still to break (reuse exists today across the modern economy, but the models are incompatible — think beverages in Germany to propane tanks in the U.S.), recommendations and guardrails for cities can help minimize risk, maximize short-term returns and steer the way for scaled, widespread adoption and impact for reuse.
Collaborative working frameworks for a fully implemented reuse system — this is the purpose of the World Economic Forum Consumers Beyond Waste (CBW) initiative’s community papers, released in conjunction with the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit during U.N. General Assembly week earlier this year.
Cities have policy (regulation), infrastructure and procurement resources they can use to engage the public and incentivize actions that benefit reuse.
Featuring Design Guidelines, Safety Guidelines and The City Playbook, the documents offer a holistic view for reuse in different environments, and are authored by a variety of stakeholders for a less wasteful future. I am one of them, along with city officials, retailers and many more leaders from the public and private sector.
Enabling manufacturers to produce reusables that can be sold at any retailer for a consumer to buy and return anywhere — safely, affordably and conveniently — in their local cities requires support from those cities. Cities have policy (regulation), infrastructure and procurement resources they can use to engage the public and incentivize actions that benefit reuse.
It’s the consensus of the above papers that some of the greatest challenges cities face are funding, infrastructure and institutional barriers, so pushing initiatives through must include answering big questions about viability and benefit. Who is reuse good for, in the long and short term, and how do we protect our citizens and commerce during the learning periods?
This is key for continued development of standards for cities that are socially equitable and environmentally positive, and help to align their activities with the global ecosystem.