Circular economy approaches advanced in 2019, particularly for plastics and packaging. The explosion of media interest in the ocean plastics crisis has driven both consumers and regulators to seek action. Companies are responding with new strategies to reduce waste.
“There’s a stronger sense of urgency in the consumer products and retail space to move more aggressively to go after recycled content and to go after a wider variety of solutions,” Bridget Croke, vice president of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners, told GreenBiz.
In some cases, it’s a bit of back to the future, with businesses seeking to close the packaging loop with new product delivery models that actually existed a long time ago but now have a modern twist. In other cases, its new, breakthrough technologies for chemical recycling of plastic materials that companies are increasingly getting behind.
Momentum is building, although we’ve still got a long way to go in creating a fully circular economy. Looking to 2020 and beyond, here are six emerging trends to keep an eye on:
1. Policymakers seek to hold producers responsible for waste
The policy landscape focused on end-of-life needs for products picked up in 2019. Although many bills are still in play in the United States, look to 2020 and beyond to see them go into effect.
“It’s a function of the turmoil in the industry and all the plastics challenges,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industrial collaboration at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that launched the Circular Economy Accelerator this year to advocate policy solutions.
Companies are also more willing to collaborate on policy now, de Thomas said: “The question is: Is legislation going to be done to them or with them?”
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills that require manufacturers and retailers to contribute to the cost of collecting, recycling and disposing of their products at the end of life or use are making headway in states such as California and Maine. The National Stewardship Action Council, in fact, lists nine states with EPR legislation on specific products such as carpets, drugs and sharps, or on packaging. A federal bill covering EPR legislation was even drafted, aimed at reducing plastic waste.
California’s bills are especially robust and would create a comprehensive regulatory scheme for producers, retailers and wholesalers of single-use packaging and priority single-use products, requiring a 75 percent reduction of such waste statewide by 2030.
Europe and Canada already have EPR systems in place for packaging and goods such as electronics, batteries and cars, but Europe is moving towards “eco-modulation” that ties manufacturer costs for EPR programs to the recyclability or amount of recycled content in packaging.
2. Companies collaborate to reuse materials and packaging
The groundbreaking Next Gen Consortium — which seeks to create fully recoverable takeout cups — exemplifies how companies are increasingly partnering with supply chain members to solve materials challenges. We should see more such partnerships in 2020 and beyond.
“Businesses are testing things they wouldn’t have been open to a few years ago,” Croke said. “We’re seeing folks putting bets in multiple areas. Not just trying to solve the recycling side but also looking at new ways to deliver products that might not include packaging at all.”
“Producers are being stronger partners in the system,” agreed de Thomas, who says it’s one thing that excites him most about the future. Companies are better understanding what it means to use recycled content in packaging and ensuring that the packaging they’re making can be recycled, he said.
“Five years ago, it was a challenge to get brands to use the Association of Plastic Recyclers. Design Guide for Recyclability, but now that they’re needing the material from the recycling system, they’re paying more attention to how they put their product out in the marketplace,” he said. “Companies are producing better packaging.”
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