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System-level change for circularity: The central role of partnerships

Sponsored: Leadership no longer looks like a large company beating the competition to an incredible, unique solution; it looks like changing the system through collaborative innovation.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article is sponsored by Eastman.

I love this quote from Greta Thunberg: "If the system doesn’t work, change the system." Doing so is not simple or easy. But this short statement makes my priority as director of sustainability at Eastman crystal clear. It’s a priority I believe companies should hold at every level of the value chain.

Many of us know the linear economic and production system isn’t working for our world’s long-term good. And recycling isn’t working like we’ve promised for the past 40 years. They believed us when we said they could throw their used packaging and products in the recycling bin and the system would turn them into something new. But only 12 percent of the plastics disposed of around the globe each year fulfill that promise by being mechanically recycled. Consumers are increasingly aware of this gap between expectation and reality. Before disappointment or distrust drives people to disengage from the system altogether, we had better do something differently.

Opportunities going to waste pie chart

Opportunities for disposed plastic going to waste. Image courtesy of Eastman.

It’s important for companies to innovate their own products and packaging to reduce, reuse, recycle or incorporate renewable materials — we’re doing that at Eastman, too. But for those actions to have the impact we hope for, we also need to apply our creativity and innovation to infrastructure. To mainstream circularity, we have to change the system, and we can’t mainstream circularity unless we are actually collecting all the waste plastics that can’t be reduced or reused and sending them to material-to-material recycling plants. No single company can do this alone.

The good news is that I see this phrase used frequently by a wide variety of companies: "We know we can’t do it alone." We all "get it" that we need to work together — but it’s not always easy to execute on that idea.

So, I’m writing to share what I’ve learned on Eastman’s journey of building partnerships to address the plastic waste crisis. Feel free to incorporate these insights and lessons into your company’s approach, too.

Look beyond the 'usual suspects'

Here’s an important piece of advice: Turn to your existing partners, suppliers and trade organizations — and also be willing to explore unexpected partnerships.

Many of Eastman’s circularity partners would not have been an obvious choice to us five years ago. But when mainstreaming circularity became a central goal, we started seeking out and solidifying new types of partnerships to accomplish our targets.

For example, maybe you’re a supplier, and you don’t think of the brands that buy from you as potential partners for systemic change. I encourage you to reframe your perspective.

For example, Eastman is collaborating with P&G to get colored shampoo bottles destined for the landfill out of the waste stream. Since we sold our traditional polyethylene terephthalate (PET) business more than a decade ago, we haven’t had a lot of reason to work with companies in the fast-moving consumer goods arena, so this was not an obvious outreach.

Similarly, we’ve worked closely with Warby Parker to create a closed loop system for their demo lenses. While we’ve long sold materials into the eyewear sector, take-back programs are new for us. These particular advancements wouldn’t be possible without branching out from "business as usual" with customers.

Eyewear materials organized on a white surface

Creating a closed loop system for eyewear demo lenses. Image courtesy of Eastman. 

Competitors can be great collaborators, too. If you’re wondering how that could work, check out the Sustainable Apparel Coalition: Brands, retailers and manufacturers that compete against each other in the market come together to create standards and guidelines for textiles, and the entire industry is able to advance. If you’re not part of a pre-competitive coalition like this, I urge you to consider it.

Look for what’s working and plug in

Sometimes it makes sense to create your own branded, multi-stakeholder circularity initiative. But for many companies, that’s not the most effective route. Look instead for organizations that are already creating systemic change. Consider what role your company could play beyond your traditional place in the value chain. Learn what initiatives you can help establish or lead through existing organizations, even if your company is relatively small.

Eastman is doing this in a few ways. We’ve joined The Recycling Partnership, which is "solving for circularity" in large part by enabling regional materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to be successful. We plugged into their work even more deeply by joining the steering committee of their PET Recycling Coalition. This coalition is working to increase recycling by increasing the capture of PET bottles and by broadening the types of applications collected, often by awarding grants to recycling facilities for sorting equipment and related capital needs.

Closeup shot of recycled materials in bales

Working to increase recycling by capturing hard-to-recycle plastic waste that is destined for landfill. Image courtesy of Eastman.

We’re also a member and represented on the board of directors of the U.S. Plastics Pact, a public-private collaboration founded by The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund to drive change in U.S. systems.

Remember: ultimately, it’s all about people

Speaking of The Recycling Partnership, I love that it is active in thousands of communities around the U.S., engaging residents in recycling. It is also providing monetary and technical resources that community recycling programs and regional MRFs need to improve outcomes.

It reminds me that ultimately, changing the recycling system entails making it work better for people. Making molecular recycling possible, designing products so they can be easily recycled, reducing waste and reliance on fossil fuels — all of the things we do as companies affect people. We can’t forget this when solving challenges inside our companies.

And as companies, we need to think about how resources, actions and job opportunities can be more equitably distributed to create opportunities within communities that have lacked access to recycling systems. How will your company listen to community voices and meet their needs?

Eastman, for example, is working to incorporate the social aspects of mainstreaming circularity into our decision-making, especially related to environmental justice. For us, this has entailed formally articulating five ways in which we commit to pursue environmental justice:

  • By applying our world-class technologies and knowledge to environmental innovations that lead to products with lower environmental impacts and improved benefits for our communities.
  • By operating all existing and future facilities in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts, meets or exceeds all environmental compliance requirements, and ensures fair treatment and meaningful involvement for those living in our communities.
  • By engaging with our site communities, including community advisory panels, to consider social, economic, educational and ecological risks, and to understand how we can more effectively support communities near our sites that are determined to be disadvantaged
  • By comprehensively monitoring pertinent issues via publicly available environmental justice screening tools to identify and assess key community concerns
  • Through dedication to the principles of "Responsible Care," which are designed to protect human health and the environment through risk management, accident prevention, transparent reporting, and a continuous improvement mindset

Partnership and collaboration will likely play a vital role as we make good on these commitments.

Circular leadership looks different

Leadership no longer looks like a large company beating the competition to an incredible, unique solution. It looks like changing the system through collaborative innovation. So, my question for you is, who will you collaborate with now?

I invite you to connect with Eastman’s circularity experts today, or contact our team directly at [email protected] to explore opportunities to innovate, advocate and learn together. It takes all of us to generate system-level change for circularity.

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