(CBEY-supported student volunteers (left to right, Sofía John (MEM/MBA ‘24), Cicy Geng (MEM ‘23), Isobel Campbell (MEM ‘23) and Carolina Sanchez (MEM/MBA ‘24) at Circularity ‘23 with Dandelion the Seahorse. The ocean plastics sculpture was created by Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea)
In June, 1,400 professionals from industry, government, and NGOs convened in Seattle for Circularity ‘23. The three-day conference hosted by GreenBiz provided an opportunity to explore developments, innovations, and challenges in charting a path toward a circular economy. A wide range of organizations were represented, including WWF, Starbucks, REI, Metabolic, and BP.
Seattle, Washington, was the perfect location for Circularity ‘23. The city and state are leading the charge on circularity infrastructure and strategies. During a keynote address, Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, highlighted the state’s impressive efforts: a state-wide industrial symbiosis program, technical support and grant funding for circularity initiatives provided by NextCycle Washington, a ban on food waste in garbage in Seattle, and a materials marketplace to encourage reuse.
Alongside a host of Yale alumni, a number of YSE and SOM students were in attendance. Tais Idi-Infante (MEM ‘24) was selected for the Emerging Leader program. Lauren Phipps (MEM ‘24) moderated sessions. We attended as student volunteers and noted several key themes at the conference: supply chain traceability, the growing focus on reuse, circularity metrics, chemical recycling, and progress on the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution.
Supply Chain Traceability
With the rise and fall (read: thunderous crash) of various cryptocurrencies and the FTX scandal, you might think blockchain is a thing of the past. And yet, there was a packed audience for a talk on digital product passports. Digital product passports are essentially digital twins of physical items that enable supply chain transparency. Panel speaker, Mesbah Sabur, is the founder of Circularise. Its blockchain system allows various actors to verify product data throughout the supply chain. Thus, digital product passports back companies’ sustainability claims while allowing suppliers along the value chain to safeguard sensitive information. The flow of data enables a circular economy. Clearer information on materials in a product makes it easier to extract value from “wastes” at end-of-life.
It is unclear if and when the adoption of digital product passports will become commonplace. However, wide adoption could be a boon to sustainability professionals. Imagine a world where endless surveys are not needed to track down data points from suppliers, and life cycle assessments are automatically generated from product data. Until then, we’ll be tracking the development of blockchain-enabled supply chain traceability in the market.
Interest in reuse solutions is also growing, highlighted by a focused tutorial session and mentions in several panels. The main takeaway from these conversations was that implementing successful reuse programs is challenging, but with the right support systems and stakeholder collaboration, there could be many benefits (such as waste and carbon emissions reductions, improved customer experience, and cost savings). For example, city governments can support an uptick in reuse. Reuse Seattle is an initiative by the City of Seattle that offers resources and rebate incentives for businesses to transition from single-use to reusable containers. This has enabled companies in attendance, such as r.Cup, Bold Reuse, and Reusables.com, to offer reusable cups and food containers at cafes, entertainment venues, and universities in the city.
Collaborations with large corporations were noted as an important piece of the puzzle for reuse solutions to scale. For example, Starbucks and CVS Health are piloting reusable cup and bag solutions through Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, a multi-company consortia. Competitors are recognizing the importance of collaboration and standardization of solutions to scale sustainable reuse systems. On this front, the PR3 Initiative is leading the development of standards for reusable packaging.
Corporate sustainability strategies increasingly include circularity. But where should efforts be focused? Should they prioritize extending product life, incorporating recycled materials, or implementing take-back systems? The myriad of frameworks, methodologies, and disclosure requirements have been challenging for companies to decipher. Recognizing the challenge, the Circular Economy Indicators Coalition (CEIC) put together Corporate circular target-setting guidance to harmonize metrics and existing frameworks. Panelists from Accenture, the Platform for Accelerating Circular Economy (PACE), and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation led a packed-out session on this topic.
They suggested developing Outcome KPIs based on:
Circular Inputs: the input materials to products and packaging, such as renewable materials or non-virgin plastics
Circular Outputs: the quantity of materials and waste captured post-use, diverted from landfill, and recovered for re-use, upcycling, or downcycling
Operational Waste: the waste generated throughout company operations, such as product production
Circular Revenues: income arising from circular products, services, and solutions
Each Outcome KPI was built on Enabler KPIs that track progress on intermediary processes, such as circular design or output waste collection. Recognizing sector-specific challenges, targeted guidance was provided for textiles, plastics, food, electronics, and capital equipment industries.
Clarity on setting circularity metrics and targets will be crucial for companies progressing towards circularity by supporting internal business cases and holding companies accountable to “circularity” washing.
Recycling can be divided into chemical and mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling is more common and entails physical changes such as melting plastic bottles or creating paper pulp. However, over time contamination increases, and properties are degraded - making it harder to meet technical specifications (such as food or medical-grade plastics).
Chemical recycling allows “full circularity” by returning materials to their chemical building blocks (monomers) and rebuilding virgin materials. However, toxic emissions during the conversion process and incineration of end products introduce serious pollution and environmental justice concerns. This raised the question: should full circularity be targeted when other approaches have lower environmental impacts? The debate highlighted the different schools of thought but emphasized a need to consider unintended consequences, full lifecycle thinking, and localized impacts.
UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution
The second negotiation meeting of the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution took place immediately before Circularity '23 in Paris. Delegates from industry, government, and NGOs who participated in the negotiations gathered on a keynote panel session to discuss progress and the implications of the discussions.
The landmark agreement aims to limit plastic pollution and tackles issues such as harmful polymer compounds, microplastics, and the clean-up of existing plastic in the environment. The agreement was compared in significance to the widely-lauded Montreal Protocol for CFCs.
The attendees were positive about the progress made in the second meeting. The negotiations resulted in a “zero draft,” bringing forward the stances of all negotiators and providing the skeleton for finer details in subsequent meetings. Panelists highlighted that the treaty will have impacts on every business and industry. Companies have an opportunity to not only lead innovation but weigh in on future negotiations through the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty led by WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Delegates are aiming to have the treaty in place by 2025. “It’s swift, but definitely at the speed our planet needs,” emphasized Erin Simon, US VP for plastic waste and business at WWF.
Circularity '23 was a perfect opportunity to take the pulse on industry ambitions and progress on the circular economy and meet a range of circularity leaders. There are many inspiring circularity initiatives across industries, but there is still a lot to be done!