Moving towards a circular economy

The life cycle of a cellphone has often been linear – lithium and other raw materials are mined and harvested, then processed to create the product. The cellphone is then placed in single-use packaging and shipped to a store where it will eventually be purchased. The phone is part of the consumer’s life for a couple of years, until they are ready to purchase a new one. Then the old phone may be tucked away in a drawer or thrown away, eventually ending up in a landfill.  

As more waste continues to be generated using limited natural resources, companies are working to break this linear waste stream and keep materials in use after a product’s lifespan by advancing a circular economy. This economic model strives to eliminate waste, protect natural resources, and achieve maximum use in every process.  

The business-led Sustainable Growth Coalition, convened by Environmental Initiative, is harnessing various expertise through collaboration to grow the circular economy. Coalition members see the circular economy as the next frontier of corporate sustainability, driving innovation, uncovering new business growth opportunities, and allowing communities to thrive. 

While efforts to move towards a circular economy are underway, many companies are still in the early stages of adoption and determining how their work would fit into this model. The effort to create and find ways to keep materials out of the waste stream comes from a push from stakeholders, customers, and a growing understanding of the limited resources available. The Sustainable Growth Coalition held a well-attended panel discussion earlier this month on circularity and waste as part of their learning lab series.

“A lot of companies are thinking of these planetary boundaries we are reaching. We have already hit boundaries for land systems change,” said Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity for Greenbiz Group, during the panel. “I think we have left what was the former stable era of Earth…As companies start to really wrap their heads around what ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria] looks like, it is becoming clearer that we can’t keep operating this way.” 

Speakers at the Sustainable Growth Coalition panel said this is a pivotal moment as new technology is developed and companies look for ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle material, with the eventual goal of eliminating waste altogether. 

“I think it’s a watershed moment for businesses to make change,” said Ingrid Mattsson, director of brand and sustainability for Uponor. “They’re realizing these changes are good for their brand, and good for employee retention.”  

As companies look at ways to make the shift, many are already implementing processes that extend the lifespan of materials. Recycling products and reusing materials is how some companies are reducing waste as they work towards eliminating it. For example, Best Buy recycles many products and offers a variety of ways for customers to easily recycle their old technology. One way this is done is through their recycling program. As part of the program, customers can drop off up to three electronics per household, per day for free at Best Buy stores or take advantage of their Standalone Haul-Away service where they will remove and recycle old tech items from customers’ homes.   

The company is working to advance the circular economy by making it easier to reuse materials and keep old products in circulation longer and out of the waste stream. Customers may not think about these recycling processes as a circular solution, but the company does, said Tim Dunn, director of environmental affairs for Best Buy. 

The shift to a circular economy has challenges, especially since it requires innovation and exploring new ways to create and use products. There’s momentum though as ESGs and other company initiatives are adding work and language around the circular economy.  

“Changing individual mindsets is not easy. Same with corporations,” Mattsson said. “It’s a shift we are working to do. It’s not impossible, but it’s challenging.” 

Changing systems is a long process, but many of these efforts are already underway, and the panelists expressed hope at where the work is going.  

“Circularity gives a new face to sustainability, and almost a more obtainable one,” Mattsson said. “It drives new thinking, new jobs, and innovation. Its purpose is providing solutions to waste.” 

For more information, see these circularity resources provided by the panelists.