Written by Ana Fraisse-Tilden and Alexandra Smith-O’Connor
Presented by Companies for Zero Waste, the first Zero Waste East Conference in September highlighted the latest trends in the pursuit of a circular economy, where material inputs—goods and their constituent parts—lose as little of their value as possible, renewable energy is the sole source of energy, and systems thinking is integrated into decision-making at all scales. The two-day event in Newark, New Jersey convened industry leaders, government, NGOs, waste management experts, and investors to discuss actions to effectively combat the climate crisis. Four themes rose to the surface of discussions, which are detailed below.
Reframing the Issue
Language matters. There was wide acceptance among conference participants for the need to reframe the problem. Instead of labeling the issue as climate change, stakeholders must adapt their language toward mobilizing resources that collectively combats a climate crisis. Change implies passivity and something that will occur regardless of actions taken, whereas crisis raises the alarm, calling on individuals and communities to respond with solutions.
There is also a need to reframe the focus. Rather than concentrating on the crippling impact of climate change, a clearer call to action that highlights innovative and successful solutions should be tailored to different contexts. Industry’s fixation on designing products with only the ‘end of life’ in mind instead of ‘end of use’ is misinformed. To adapt in the midst of a climate crisis, products—in their design stage—should be viewed as a convenient ‘service,’ one that is durable, not disposable. For consumers, we must each embrace the notion of scarcity, recognizing that no resource is infinite. Reframing mindsets around the value of materials currently considered waste, consumers will cease to treat post-consumer materials as valueless.
Reframing mindsets around the value of materials currently considered waste, consumers will cease to treat post-consumer materials as valueless.
Education & Engagement of Consumers
Change the narrative. Public discourse around waste and wastefulness should resonate with people and businesses. To put the focus the narrative on the impact to life on the planet instead of the nebulous idea of harming the physical planet is one way to accomplish this. Approximately 200 species go extinct with each passing day. Consistent reminders of the unfolding ecological tragedy will help educate the public, increase engagement among communities and businesses, and ultimately lead to social change. Public awareness around the life cycle of a product will influence both the products themselves and materials management policies.
Consistent reminders of the unfolding ecological tragedy will help educate the public, increase engagement among communities and businesses, and ultimately lead to social change.
Consumers, with their purchasing power, have considerable influence. According to Nielson, “Nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.” With consumers looking to minimize their ecological footprints, and technology at their fingertips, it’s important for companies to consider the extent of their business’ impact, not only in the economic context but socially and environmentally.
There’s also a need for increased transparency, both in how products are made and how they are disposed to inform consumers’ choices. How will the product’s materials be disposed? Can the various materials be used to create other products? Is the product easy to return or recycle? These are questions consumers are asking and producers must be prepared to answer to remain competitive in the marketplace.
Education & Engagement of Businesses
This is a race to the lowest impact. In the absence of political will to create an enabling environment that incentivizes environmental stewardship, companies are being proactive, competing with their low-impact product and process innovations. If industry can organize around contributing to a circular economy, important public policies can be ushered into existence and change will be catalyzed. Businesses are recognizing that to remain competitive, they need a clear understanding of the entire lifecycle of their products, including what happens after disposal. As more companies create circular products, and as the consumer demand grows, profits will too.
Businesses are recognizing that to remain competitive, they need a clear understanding of the entire lifecycle of their products, including what happens after disposal.
Businesses need to start incorporating the principles of circularity into their product design, creating a product that at its end of life can break down the component materials for reuse in other products. With each decision, businesses must ask whether there are opportunities to reduce waste leakage. Businesses must also provide guidance to consumers in product selection and disposal to reduce confusion. This can be integrated into their marketing efforts by adding a story to the product, thereby connecting the consumer with the issue.
Policies must keep pace with an evolving context and companies can advocate for such changes. With companies at the forefront of the changing landscape, it’s important they acknowledge our climate crisis and guide elected officials toward policies that conserve biodiversity and protect scarce resources. Sensible regulations will incentivize businesses to create more sustainable products and encourage local governments to adopt contextually appropriate circular policies. With consumers, businesses, and local governments on board, positive change accelerates at a critical juncture in the climate crisis.
Sensible regulations will incentivize businesses to create more sustainable products and encourage local governments to adopt contextually appropriate circular policies.
The good news is that change is already happening. Speakers Tom Szaky from TerraCycle, Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, Inc., Denise Coogan of Subaru of America, Inc., and many others spoke about the actions their companies are taking towards reducing waste and transitioning to a circular economy.
TerraCycle collects and repurposes otherwise non-recyclable pre- and post-consumer waste. The company operates in 21 countries, working with the world’s largest brands to create national platforms to recycle products and packaging that currently go to landfill or incineration. Subaru of America Inc. is working alongside TerraCycle to recycle waste in its dealerships across the United States. To date they have recycled one million pieces of waste through the Subaru Loves the Earth recycling program.
Seventh Generation has an aggressive plan to make all its packaging from bio-based or PCR (post-consumer recycled) sources by 2020. By 2025, it intends to lead in selling products that can be either reused, recycled, or biodegradable. In its supply chain, the company is making packaging with recycled materials, assigning greater value to this resource. With regard to product ‘light-weighting,’ more compact packaging is lighter to ship and requires fewer resources for production and consumption.
Leading brands are signaling big changes are on the horizon. With consumers demanding sustainable products, businesses responding with circular practices, and governments passing legislation that require compliance, progress is inevitable.
Co-Author Alexandra Smith-O’Connor
As a program manager for PYXERA Global, Alex brings her experience in logistics and cross-sector engagement to the management and implementation of Global Pro Bono programs.
Prior to joining PYXERA Global, Alex worked in Operations for a global Tech/Finance firm where she increased team collaboration and efficiency through process improvements and systems change. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia, Alex focused on women’s empowerment and strengthening community engagement by building sustainable cross-sector partnerships with local counterparts.
Alex holds an MA in International Affairs from the New School, with a focus on the intersectionality of conflict & security and private sector sustainability.