“We didn’t create the problems on our own…and we can’t solve them on our own.”
– John Kotlarczyk Jr, Senior Director, Corporate Social Responsibility &
Waste Reduction, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc.
Hundreds of leaders from business, academia, government, and nonprofits were greeted with this refrain at the start of the 4th annual US Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) Summit on Sustainability and Circular Economy. If you know anything about the USCCF, you know they exist to unite the public, business, and communities through thought-provoking dialogue that inspires action toward creative solutions. The summit achieved this, and more.
Until now, leaders from across industries and sectors have grappled with the implications of a circular economy, and more critically, how we achieve one. While there is no silver bullet or obvious answers, one thing is certain—because the system is complex and the needed solutions range across geographies, cultures, and levels of infrastructural development, collaboration is essential.
A truly circular economy is one where waste and pollution are all but eliminated, products and materials are reused or regenerated, and the liquidation of natural capital occurs at a sustainable scale. While the circular economy takes into account all types of material waste—solid, liquid, and gaseous, such as carbon emissions—a major focus, in general and at the summit, has been on plastics.
Private Sector Collaboration
Business and industry have been at the center of the circular economy vortex since the start. They are the mass producers of the materials destined for landfills and oceans. They are also the most resource-rich, globally positioned group with the technology, access to expertise, and ability to influence. Therefore, many say they also have the responsibility to bring about the change.
Collaboration with and within the private sector, however, is not easy. When questioned how Dow, one of the largest plastics producers, is collaborating with others toward circularity, Haley Lowry, Dow’s Global Sustainability and End Use Marketing Director shared that they, along with 40 other companies, have aligned to form the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, resulting in an investment fund toward plastic waste reduction.
The focus of the consortium will be on innovation, infrastructure, education, and clean up. Ultimately, impact to this group means no plastic ‘leakage’ into the environment. Alliance members recognize they are uniquely positioned to innovate and design eco-friendly and sustainable products, contribute to stronger infrastructure that can support single-use materials, and align their philanthropic dollars and community commitments to their sustainability journey.
Behavior change occurs only after we change the narrative and our mindset. The USCCF’s Beyond 34 initiative tells us that there is currently a 34 percent recycling rate in the United States. Our economic system treats post-consumer goods as valueless after they fulfill their primary use. In a circular economy, however, we recognize products must be fed back into the system through reuse or recycling, or break down naturally.
Behavior change occurs only after we change the narrative and our mindset.
There is a population of consumers with the best of intentions when it comes to recycling, but due to the lack of education, they attempt to recycle items that their local infrastructure cannot handle. Brandie Ishcomer Barrett, Deputy Public Works Director for the City of Phoenix refers to this as “wish-cycling.” Non-recyclable items mixed into the recycling stream requires manual time to remove the items, repair affected equipment, or even send entire contaminated loads to a landfill.
“The business community is so far ahead of what colleges can supply.”
– Eric Beckman, George M. Bevier Professor of Engineering and Co-Director,
Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, University of Pittsburgh
Eric Beckman shared that in the world of academia, there is a feeling that the brand of sustainability and circular economy has been developed by business before the execution plan of what it actually means—and needs. The current sentiment across a variety of US college campuses is that there are no instructional materials or credentials for teaching the principles of circularity within the STEM or economics disciplines. To sustain the trajectory of the field, connection between business and education is imperative to close the information loop and drive progress toward closing the material loop.
The focal areas for the transition to circularity have been mapped. What we need now is to keep the advancing the dialogue with support from leaders like the USCCF to inspire commitment, collaboration, and sustained investment, and change mindsets to eliminate the concept of waste as we know it.
Cover image courtesy of Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce