Maxine Perella reports on how brands like Timberland, HP, Dell and P&G led the way by incorporating waste in new products and packaging

The circular economy gained ground in 2017 with the spread of the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR), whereby companies take responsibility for the products and packaging they make or sell when they become waste.

Most EPR is mandatory (there are around 400 schemes globally governed by various laws), but over the past 12 months there has been a rise in voluntary EPR schemes as companies look to invest in targeting specific materials that they can either take back into their supply chains, or create social value with in order to have a wider impact.

Some companies are looking to do both. Timberland, for example, created a new supply chain through the launch of its Timberland X Thread collection, resulting in 77 income opportunities in Haiti whilst transforming more than 765,000 waste plastic bottles into shoe, bag, and clothing fabric.  HP has also partnered with Thread in Haiti, and this year released the first plastic printer cartridges made from recovered plastic bottles. 

(Credit: Justin Hofman National Geographic)

Populist issues like ocean plastics and coffee cups, both of which dominated headlines this year, are also key drivers for socially minded EPR. P&G unveiled its new Fairy Ocean plastic bottle in October, with ocean plastics making up 10% of the bottle. Retrieving enough marine-based plastic of a good enough quality for manufacturing supply chains remains a challenge.

Brands are keen to capitalise on schemes with a direct community benefit that generate high levels of public engagement on circular thinking. This summer, the UK’s first outdoor gym made from Right Guard recycled aerosol cans was launched by Henkel and TerraCycle, and in the run up to Mother’s Day, Mothercare’s Gift A Bundle redistribution campaign with Hubbub saw parents gift 200,000 baby clothing items to families struggling to make ends meet.

By setting an internal plastics pricing scheme, Starboard has created a fund to invest back into ocean protection

Collaboration through platforms like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy and WWF’s Cascading Materials Vision will be critical in finding new solutions, and companies are already setting internal targets to work towards this. This year Dell committed to increasing its annual use of ocean-bound plastic by a factor of 10 by 2025, based on a 2017 baseline. As part of this, it is looking to build an ocean plastics supply chain in partnership with the Lonely Whale Foundation.

The scale of the plastics problem may lead to demand for greater disclosure in the coming years. An early example is Thailand surfboard manufacturer Starboard’s plastic offset programme to counter the impacts of its own plastics use. By setting an internal plastics pricing system, it has created a fund of at least $24,000 to invest back into ocean protection projects. On a wider level, Australian social enterprise Plastic Collective’s plastics neutrality certification scheme aims to help businesses offset their plastics usage.

Dell has committed to a tenfold increase of its use of ocean-bound plastic (Credit: Dell)

Whether plastic offsets will catch on remains to be seen, but companies will be seen as more credible if they focus their efforts on prevention and look for ways to stem the tide of more plastics entering the ocean. J&J’s decision to replace its blue plastic cotton bud handles with paper ones drew much positive media attention, given studies that found cotton buds make up more than 30% of beach litter. The widely publicised photo of a seahorse hugging a discarded cotton bud has since served to heighten attention on the issue.

On coffee cups, a cross-industry partnership involving Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Greggs, McDonald’s and Pret A Manger, among others, should see recycling efforts accelerate in the UK, where just 1% of 2.5 billion disposable cups thrown away each year are recovered. The collaboration aims to work towards a national paper cup recycling solution, but this could be superseded by a mandatory “latte levy” on single-use cups to encourage use of reusable alternatives. Only Starbucks and Pret A Manger offer customers a discount if they bring in a reusable cup.

Scotland could impose a coffee cup tax alongside a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers

Ministers in Scotland and Ireland are considering imposing such a charge, and for Scotland this cup tax could be brought in alongside a national deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, set to launched before the end of this parliamentary term. Despite Coca-Cola in the end coming out in support of a DRS for Scotland, a Greenpeace investigation revealed strong opposition to such schemes among industry groups representing supermarkets, food retailers and drinks producers. In England, a broader tax on single-use plastics may be in the pipeline after the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in his autumn Budget that he would work with environment secretary Michael Gove to look into how the tax system and charges on single-use plastics could reduce plastics waste.

Meanwhile RecycleToCoin, the world’s first blockchain recycling initiative, is an enterprise-led DRS initiative that aims to partner with the third sector to install reverse-vending machines in various cities. Instead of cash, users are rewarded with tokens, which can be donated to good causes or exchanged for digital currency. It will be interesting to see if RecycleToCoin can work alongside a national deposit return scheme, given that one of the first machines will arrive in Glasgow next year.

Coca-Cola has come out in support of a DRS for Scotland, despite previous opposition (credit: Shutterstock Inc.)

Countries are now stepping up efforts to create more circular systems that can combat waste whilst contributing to economic growth. Scotland is planning to introduce a new Circular Economy and Zero Waste Bill and has set aside £1m to encourage circular manufacturing. Wales has set up a £6.5m circular economy investment fund and hopes to produce a plastics roadmap in the not too distant future. It will also be consulting on higher mandatory recycling targets of 80%.

The EU’s ambitious Circular Economy package is also encouraging member-states to legislate more forcefully. France will ban single-use plastic cups, plates and cutlery from 2020 as part of its Act on Energy Transition for Green Growth, and is now aiming to use 100% recycled plastics throughout the economy by 2025. The French government will publish a road map in 2018 outlining how it intends to achieve this.

Wales has set up a £6.5m circular economy investment fund and hopes to produce a plastics roadmap

Finland has published a circular economy roadmap, stating that the circular economy could generate €2-3bn in added value for the country each year. Finnish innovation fund Sitra has identified 100 circular pioneers and is trialling various projects to find practical solutions. Meanwhile calls for more economic incentives to design out waste – particularly on plastic packaging – may lead to tougher policy ambition on EPR across Europe going forward.

In the US, California has become the first state to ban plastic bags after a hard-fought battle that involved a legal challenge. The New York State Plastic Bag Task Force has also been established. But most action remains at a local level, such as Seattle’s forthcoming ban on plastic straws and utensils. At state level, far more opposition exists, with plastic bag and packaging ban pre-emption laws on the books in about 10 states, including Arizona.

Collaborations such as the Square Mile Challenge have seen coffee cup recycling accelerate (Credit: Hubbub Foundation)

Not much is happening in terms of federal funding for circular initiatives. There are concerns that under Donald Trump’s leadership, US Congress may cut EPA funding for basic recycling and food waste programmes. Shortly after Trump got elected, the US Department of Energy launched the $140m REMADE Institute, focused on recycling and reusing materials for greener manufacturing, but with budget cuts yet to be finalised it’s unclear whether funding commitments will be honoured going forward.

California has become the first state in the US to ban plastic bags after a hard-fought legal battle 

Elsewhere, the South African government has ceased funding Redisa, the country’s national waste tyre recycling scheme and a 2016 runner up of The Circulars Awards, following reports of alleged corruption. The scheme was held up as a great example of how EPR can boost low unemployment rates and help lift people out of poverty if governed well. There are also fears that Kenya’s tough plastic bag ban could worsen the country’s sanitation crisis as well as punish the poorest, who use plastics bags as mobile toilets in preference to open defecation.

Looking ahead, expect future regulation of the circular economy to come under greater scrutiny. Greenpeace has warned that the circular economy could become a “toxic recirculation nightmare” if the use and release of hazardous chemicals from production chains isn’t eliminated. It points to the textile global supply chain, where recycling happens before detoxing processes and materials occur. The European Parliament has since issued a briefing document on chemicals of concern.

Maxine Perella is an environmental journalist and commentator working in the field of sustainable business, circular economy and resource risk. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times and CNN. @greendipped

Main image credit: WWF
circular economy  EPR  Timberland  HP  Thread  Haiti  ocean plastics  Hubbub  P&G  coffee cup recycling  WWF  DRS  Ellen Macarthur Foundation  Dell 

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