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3 Key Learnings from Circularity 22

Last month, SBC’s resident circular economy guru Audrey Kriva headed to Atlanta for three action-packed days at GreenBiz’s Circularity 22. With over fifty keynotes, breakouts, and tutorials to explore, the event offered up a slew of insights on topics like next-gen packaging, business model innovation, supply chain resiliency, and much more.

Forward-thinking leaders know that the circular economy is key to tackling some of today’s biggest societal challenges, from climate change to social justice issues. While momentum toward embracing circular principles is picking up steam, many businesses struggle with implementation. So, rather than focusing on why we should accelerate the circular economy, this year’s event was all about the how.

Reflecting back on the conference, a few key takeaways, quotes, and examples come to mind. To help you integrate circular thinking within your own business, we’ve synthesized these into three core learnings below.

Recycling is Necessary But Not Enough

A theme reinforced by multiple panelists is that recycling, while necessary, isn’t enough. To drive meaningful progress toward a circular economy, we need to reduce production altogether, in addition to increasing circularity of materials and fixing our recycling system.

Recycling has long been our “get out of guilt free” card. However, consumers’ confidence in recycling is dwindling. Nearly 50% of Americans think the recycling system is not working well, and 30% aren’t convinced that what they put in the recycling bin is actually being recycled.

These doubts are not unfounded. Today, just 5% of plastic is recycled in the US. Even materials we perceive as highly recyclable have alarmingly low recycling rates – just 35% and 31% of aluminum and glass are recycled, respectively.

So, what will it take to fix our faulty recycling system? As Keefe Harrison of the Recycling Partnership stated, we need to ensure that everyone can recycle, everyone does recycle, and that we have the infrastructure we need for the future, not the past. According to Harrison, the magic number to accomplish all these things is $17 billion.

Bottom line? We do need to invest in a proper recycling system, but it’s not the end all be all solution. After all, as Ian Rosenberger of First Mile rightly pointed out, “we aren’t going to recycle our way out of this problem.”

This is especially true when it comes to problematic materials like plastic. We can’t lose track of the central goal – reducing the amount of virgin material produced in the first place. Remember, when it comes to the circular economy, progress is reducing the amount of extraction required to meet human needs.

Not sure where to start? Check out our recent blog for some ideas on how to phase out virgin plastic use in your business.

Collaboration is Crucial

In this day and age, you probably already understand the benefits of collaboration. The term itself may even be somewhat of a buzzword. Yet the panelists from this year's event made it abundantly clear – when it comes to advancing the circular economy, we simply cannot go about it alone.

Sarah Curran summed it up well as she walked us through SC Johnson’s journey towards meeting its 2025 packaging goals. “It’s going to take all of us coming together - competitors, suppliers, partners - to achieve circularity."

Sarah hit the nail on the head. To accelerate progress, collaboration must extend throughout your entire value chain. For instance, Ian Rosenberger of First Mile emphasized the value of giving downstream actors ownership during the product redesign process. While Ian’s example focused on equitable ownership for waste pickers, the same applies for your materials producers, haulers, and other value chain partners.

Collaboration should even extend to your competitors. This may seem risky, but pre-competitive collaboration creates a powerful market signal and incentive for change. We saw several promising examples of this during the event. For instance, Greg Corra underscored the importance of thinking beyond intellectual property as he showed us how Colgate-Palmolive open-sourced the development of its packaging materials. Nicole Camilleri of Nestle USA explained how procurement coalitions can support innovative suppliers through longer-term contracts and prepayment systems. In a nutshell, these kinds of collaborations, whether with your competitors, suppliers, or other value chain partners, boost investment in what panelists call the “enabling environment” – the policies, infrastructure, and consumer behavior change initiatives we need to integrate circularity in our daily lives.

While it’s encouraging to see so many collaborations out there, there’s always room for improvement. This is especially true for circular economy and net zero experts. More so than in the past, this year’s event drew attention the circular economy’s crucial role in achieving net zero. Unsurprisingly, multiple panelists issued a clarion call for circular economy and net zero experts to work together more closely.

Systems-Changing Circularity is Already Happening

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the event is that revolutionary circularity is already happening. Just a few examples we heard in the corporate space - SC Johnson has been rolling out concentrate versions of its most iconic brands since 2011; The Body Shop put refilling stations in 400 of its stores in 2021, with another 400 planned this year; Starbucks’ Borrow a Cup Program is now being piloted in 20 locations.

What about the technology limitations to achieving circularity? New circularity-enabling tech solutions are popping up every day. Here are just some of the many innovations we learned about at the event:

  • Algramo’s RFID technology helps consumers keep track of their refills and quantify how much plastic they’ve kept out of the landfill.
  • BanQu’s circular packaging software uses blockchain technology to track recycled material across the value chain and financially empower local waste pickers.
  • Rheaply’s B2B SaaS platform is scaling reuse in organizations of all sizes, giving workplace resources like furniture, store fixtures, and equipment a prolonged life.
  • Loop Industries turns landfill-bound PET plastic and polyester fiber, which cannot be conventionally recycled, into high value PET resin.

With so many initiatives out there, you don’t have to start from scratch if you’re just beginning your circularity journey. In fact, the event’s circular economy trailblazers were all eager to share some of their favorite tools and frameworks. Check them out below:

What’s Next?

Faced with climate crisis, rising inequity, and shifting consumer demands, we need transformative change. Now is the perfect time – as Shelton Group’s Suzanne Shelton pointed out, our context is shifting. “People are beginning to feel uncomfortable participating in a single-use, unfettered consumption economy. The brands that figure out how to engage people in circular systems are the brands that are going to win!" If this year’s event taught us anything, it’s that leading brands are already engaging people in circular systems. And they are certainly winning. If you were also at Circularity 22, we’d love to connect! Get in touch with SBC’s Audrey Kriva on LinkedIn. Curious how SBC can help you integrate circular thinking into your business model, products, and services? Get in touch with us here.