In their book released in the summer of 2018, corporate responsibility veterans David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee predicted a “Regenerative Era” of business. “We believe that as we get closer to 2025, there will be a critical mass of companies committing to a circular economy or closed-loop approach to business,” they wrote in “All In: The Future of Business Leadership.”
The financial incentive is great: The worldwide circular economy has the potential to generate $4.5 trillion in additional economic output by 2030, the global accountancy Accenture estimates. Even reaching a 75 percent waste diversion rate could create 1.1 million new jobs by 2030 in the U.S. alone, according to 2018 research.
From government collaborations to massive corporate commitments, we moved closer to realizing a circular economy in 2018. Let's take a look back as we rally for the year ahead.
Initial partners include BMW, Dow, ExxonMobil, Honda, Novartis Philips and Rabobank. If these companies fulfill their commitments and invest in circular solutions, they stand to reap great financial and reputational benefits. But if they fail to show any progress over the next few years, they may draw ire from advocates and the public. “For companies participating in this initiative, including ExxonMobil with its lucrative plastic industry, they could find themselves stuck with the reputation of yet again talking the sustainability talk but doing little to walk that walk,” 3p Executive Editor Leon Kaye observed.
Several companies stepped up to the plate last year. In October, French multinational Danone—parent company of brands like Evian water, Oikos yogurt and Silk plant-based milks—pledged to produce 100 percent circular packaging by 2025. Around 86 percent of the company’s packaging is already circular, and half of its water volumes are sold in reusable packaging, Vikas Vij reported on TriplePundit this year.
In the face of mounting pressure from advocates, Coca-Cola pledged to collect and recycle 100 percent of its beverage packaging by 2030, although the details remain murky. Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, made a similar commitment last year, pledging to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. McDonald’s and PepsiCo have similar commitments on the books.
As companies move toward greater circularity in packaging, some hard-to-recycle elements are bound to be left behind, as demonstrated by the Great Straw Revolt of 2018: In response to a wave of consumer pressure, a sizable list of companies—including Starbucks and Alaska Airlines—pledged to ditch plastic drinking straws in favor of recyclable or compostable alternatives.
Only 14 percent of plastic products are recycled, according to a 2017 report from the New Plastics Economy. “Experts with the initiative foresee a recycling ceiling of around 70 percent and say tackling the remaining 30 percent would require a ‘fundamental design and innovation’ approach,” 3p’s Tina Casey reported. The initiative aims to drive collaboration between plastic-dependent companies, recyclers and governments to reduce the volume of plastic that ends up as litter or landfill waste.
Brand participants, including Danone, Mars and Johnson & Johnson, represent 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally. These firms signed on to evidence-based, time-bound targets as part of the initiative—including pledges to increase their use of recycled material, eliminate unnecessary packaging, and make all packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The CE100 officially launched in the U.S. in 2016, and its membership is growing. The innovation program welcomed at least 20 new corporate members last year, as well as a number of nonprofit organizations and cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Toronto, Canada. Companies including Target, AB InBev and Procter & Gamble pledged to offer more circular products, invest in new technologies, and incorporate circularity into their supply chains as part of their 2018 commitments.
“For the fashion industry to thrive in the future we must replace the take-make-dispose model, which is worn out,” Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement. “We need a circular economy for fashion in which clothes are kept at their highest value and designed from the outset to never end up as waste.”
Additionally, online thrift store thredUP launched a re-commerce partnership with top apparel companies, in which consumers receive gift cards for partner brands when they send used clothing to the thrifting platform, Lauren Phipps of GreenBiz reported.
In July, Starbucks and McDonald’s joined forces on a multi-year effort to create a compostable coffee cup. With help from Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, the companies hope to release the cup by 2021, Fortune reported.
HP, for example, turned 12 million plastic bottles collected in Haiti into new ink cartridges. Everlane launched a line of outerwear made from recycled plastic and pledged to eliminate new plastic from its supply chain in 2021, while Ikea plans to begin prototyping products made from ocean-bound plastic in 2019, Fast Company reported.
The United Kingdom’s Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) launched the U.K. Plastics Pact in April to pursue a more circular economy for plastics by 2025. China and the European Union signed a joint memorandum of understanding on circular economy cooperation in July, pledging to work together and align their policies.
If that's not enough, the U.K. and Canadian governments are discussing how circularity could play into their economic plans—and they’re even considering a post-Brexit trade deal that hinges on the circular economy.
Image credits: 1) Courtesy of Starbucks 2) Courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation