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The circular economy can be a holistic approach to addressing climate change

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Circular economy practices are being tested and scaled across a broad swath of industries, and more companies are sharing details about these works in progress.

At each GreenBiz Group event throughout 2019 — GreenBiz 19, the inaugural Circularity 19 and VERGE 19 — speakers discussed their circular economy efforts in mainstage plenaries and in interviews at GreenBiz Studio.

As more companies and organizations double down on reducing their waste, finding solutions to capture and reuse packaging, materials and the products themselves is imperative. Here are some examples of this important work from around the world, highlighted at GreenBiz events over the past 12 months.

At VERGE 19, Pratima Rao Gluckman, senior engineering leader at VMware, took to the mainstage to share insights about how blockchain might enable and accelerate solutions that are critical for responding to environmental and social challenges.

VMWare partnered with Dell Technologies to launch an initiative to track and recover plastics from the ocean through the company's recycling supply chain. The plastic is reused in Dell product packaging.

"It’s impossible to track workflows across these multiple systems that are just not connected with each other,” Gluckman said, noting that Dell wanted to solve this problem. “What they need is decentralized trust, because what they found in this massive supply chain [is] that they have a lot of corruption, there’s a lot of fraud."

Using blockchain technology, the companies can verify where the plastic was sourced and collect data to back up their sustainability claims, which helps to eliminate fraud.

Also during VERGE 19, Chris Homer, CTO and co-founder of the secondhand marketplace ThredUP, explained how the company uses machine learning to streamline its processing and selling processes, collecting data about each item to help to determine pricing and whether the items will be sold online or in-store. When the company first started almost 10 years ago, it processed each garment manually.

”The problem is the cost that’s involved with having somebody do all of that,” Homer said. The company accepts over 35,000 brands, so using machine learning and artificial intelligence makes processing that data much easier.

Homer said the resale market has doubled in the last five years in terms of items handled and expects to double again over the next five to 10 years.

Back in March at GreenBiz 19, Viviana Alvarez, global head of sustainability at Unilever, spoke with GreenBiz Group President Pete May about how the company is embedding circular economy principles organization-wide.

North America is one of Unilever’s biggest markets for production and consumption of plastic. With that in mind, the company has been trying to stretch its sustainability goals. “We have a fascinating opportunity to innovate and be a louder leader in the industry, especially in the U.S., where there’s so much room of opportunity,” she said.

The opportunity will involve consumer education about the urgency of the climate crisis and leadership from companies such as Unilever to drive quicker change and be more transparent about their impact on the environment. Alvarez, who has worked in other roles at Unilever, said the question that guides her is: "How do we arrive at solutions that are more sustainable?"

TerraCycle's Tom Szaky told GreenBiz 19 attendees about Loop, a global platform with the goal to disrupt disposability. Szaky said the TerraCycle team has always asked itself, “Is making things recyclable and making them from recycled materials the answer — the foundational answer — to the waste crisis?”

The answer, he said, is that it's critically important to recycle and use recycled materials. But it is even more important to solve the root problem. That’s where Loop comes in. It attempts to eliminate waste altogether and enable consumers to reuse the packaging for everyday products. Consumers can refill their once disposable packaging — which brands redesigned for durability — for products ranging from beverages to toothpaste.

Also at GreenBiz Group’s inaugural Circularity conference, Shana Rappaport, GreenBiz Group vice president and executive director of VERGE, spoke with Molly Wood, host of Marketplace Tech, about how covering technology for 20 years has shown her that people are tired of the fear-based conversations about the climate crisis and respond well to solutions.

Discussing solutions empowers people to change their behaviors and feel like they can do something to address the problem. Wood said that the economy part of "circular economy" is important because it gets at holistic thinking. It is a sustainability effort that includes adaptation and mitigation to the climate crisis.