Posted on

5 seriously cool climate innovators in fashion

I tend towards startup scrutiny. My impulse to question — or ignore — most pitches for purported silver bullets has slowly developed over the years, due in part to growing up within shouting distance of Silicon Valley, the epicenter of startup sensationalism.Don’t get me wrong: Innovators are an irreplaceable element …

Read More

Posted on

Testing the mettle of the aluminum cup

Which is better: reusable, unrecyclable plastic or single-use, recyclable aluminum?Before we start: If you’re wondering, “How could you write about anything other than COVID-19 at a time like this?” I’ll assure you, it’s not easy. That said, during this strange time as many of us find …

Read More

Posted on

The complexities of composting

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

These days, recycling gets all the attention. Yet while the world scoffs at global recycling rates and panics at plastic pollution, I often wonder when a similar wave of public outrage will arrive for recycling’s biological counterpart: the humble world of compost. 

In the United States, only about 5 percent of households have access to curbside food waste collection, compared to about 50 percent of U.S. homes (PDF) with automatic curbside recycling available. Looking at municipal solid waste in the U.S., only 2.6 millions tons of the food waste generated in 2017 were composted — just 6.3 percent of the 40.7 million tons of total food waste generated, according to an EPA estimate

Access to curbside organics recycling is just one piece of the broader challenge that cities face when it comes to capturing, transporting, breaking down and selling compost at scale. 

For starters, there’s contamination. The presence of PFAS in some compostable and biodegradable packaging has threatened agricultural end markets, particularly for organic agriculture. (If food is grown in PFAS-contaminated compost, it’s not organic — and possibly harmful.) 

Then there’s confusion. Given that compostable cups, plates and utensils look identical to their non-compostable counterparts, even consumers with access to composting don’t always know (or consider) the appropriate bin. Organizations such as the Biodegradable Products Institute are working to certify and standardize compostability claims, but there’s currently no legal standard. And once these materials reach a processing facility, there’s no chance operators can tell if these servicewares are compostable once jumbled among a stream of food waste and other organics. 

Let’s not forget about quality. Not all “certified” compostable items actually will break down as quickly or fully as facilities need them to. This has led some composters, including those serving the state of Oregon (PDF), to stop accepting compostable packaging and serviceware altogether. 

Taking a step back, it’s important to remember what the purpose of compost actually is. This nutrient-rich material is meant to enhance soil to grow better food. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that farmers seeking to procure high-quality compost for crops would avoid a product made from a lower-quality, lower-nutrient medley of materials laden with fragments of packaging.

Finally, there’s a small, but growing, emphasis on accountability. Take Sweetgreen, the fast-casual restaurant known for seasonal salads and hexagonal bowls: despite the proud proclamation “nothing from inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill” on in-store signage since 2010, the company recently learned that, in fact, the claim was untrue. This recent Los Angeles Times article tells Sweetgreen’s still-unfolding story of navigating composting’s complexities and chronicles its latest efforts to uphold waste claims and establish truly closed-loop systems. I highly recommend the article for its compelling narrative and comprehensive exploration of the topic, through the lens of a company working to make the “right” choices. 

Indeed, a number of small-but-mighty groups are working hard to make compost the new plastic in the public eye. Organizations such as ReFED, whose analysis builds an economic case for solutions across the value chain that will cut food waste; the US Composting Council, whose just-launched Corporate Compost Leadership Group will focus on scaling tools and strategies to grow U.S. composting capacity; and LA Compost, a nonprofit working to establish community-scale composting in Los Angeles, have made great strides in diverting organics from landfills and scaling composting infrastructure. 

Still, there’s a lot more to chew on. Establishing an effective organics recycling system at scale requires a broader look at food loss and waste from farms to factories and distribution centers to dining room tables. It’s a systemic challenge that needs holistic solutions, and applying a circular lens is just one piece of the puzzle. 


Posted on

Adidas is latest fashion company hoping to weave recycled plastic into garments

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

Last week, German sportswear company adidas announced a commitment to increase the content of recycled polyester (rPET) in its garments to 50 percent before the end of the year, and to use only recycled polyester across its supply chain by 2024.

The company joins the likes of H&M, Patagonia, Everlane and other apparel companies that are beginning to tout garments made from recycled bottles — a feedstock used to manufacture recycled polyester — and advertise associated sustainability claims and climate leadership. At first blush, this is a promising step forward. 

Polyester is the most widely used fiber in the world, accounting for roughly half of the overall global fiber market and about 80 percent of all synthetics, according to the Textile Exchange. Accordingly, swapping petroleum-based polyester for fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles at scale could bring a significant positive impact. The production of recycled polyester requires 59 percent less energy than its virgin counterparts, while maintaining the same performance, aesthetic and durability standards. And broadly speaking, decoupling non-renewable resource extraction from textiles production is, of course, a central pillar of circularity.  

However, unraveling polyester’s growing appeal offers a helpful glimpse into the complex and sometimes counterintuitive web of circular supply chains for plastics. Often, the interplay between packaging and textiles is overlooked. 

Let’s start with the bottle. Once collected, most PET plastics are mechanically recycled by chopping, washing, flaking and melting the material, which can be turned back into a bottle, or formed into a fiber or filament to make shirts, sneakers and swimsuits, or woven into carpets, automotive interiors or other textiles. 

So why not turn bottles back into bottles? I’m oversimplifying a complex system that includes additional factors such as recovery rates, contamination and material blends, bio-based alternatives, policy and new technologies on the horizon, among others. But at its root, the growing demand for rPET across industry applications paired with the limited supply of recycled materials means scarcity and competition.

I spoke with Bridget Croke, managing director of the circular economy investment firm Closed Loop Partners, to learn more. “Broadly speaking, textile manufacturers and packaging manufacturers compete over the same materials,” Croke explained. “However, we have to treat recycled plastics like any other commodity; it’s dictated by supply, demand and geography.” 

Beyond economics, understanding the highest and best use of rPET isn’t exactly straightforward. Today, the life of textiles may be extended by one additional use, typically at a lower quality, or downcycling, before going to a landfill or incinerator. Plastic bottles can be recycled seven to 10 times, although the individual lifespan of a single-use bottle can be brief. 

To meet ambitious recycled packaging targets by 2025, brands and their packaging suppliers will have to put their money where their mouth is if they’re going to compete with adidas and other apparel makers.

Alison Shapiro, executive director of Closed Loop Partners, explained, “To compete, bottlers will need to offer long-term purchase orders whose average price per ton (or pound) exceeds the purchases offered by textile companies.” Shapiro continued, “Building concepts like price floors and price collars into contracts can help; these mechanisms have the added benefit of building in a minimum margin that allows [materials recovery facilities] to make capital improvements to improve yield and output, creating a virtuous loop.” 

Ultimately, competition for recycled plastics isn’t a bad thing. These demand signals contribute to the (slowly) growing market for recycled materials, which could help drive increased collection rates for plastics, another critical element for any circular system.


Posted on

Trying to measure circularity? Here are some tools to consider

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

This week, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released Circulytics, which it’s calling “the most comprehensive circularity measurement tool,” according to the announcement. As more companies set ambitious — albeit loosely defined — circularity goals, the critical need for standardizing definitions and metrics is becoming increasingly clear. 

Circulytics aims to fill this gap, helping companies such as IKEA and Unilever assess their organizational circularity, including “Enablers,” mechanisms such as strategy, infrastructure and external engagement, as well as “Outcomes,” operational inputs and outputs. It’s only the latest of a growing circularity toolkit helping to define and formalize circularity.

At the systems level, measuring circularity is primarily understood as a matter of quantifying material flows. At the business level, companies are beginning to use circularity frameworks as an internal tool to assess the full scope of materials associated with their operations and to understand the potential value and progress of circular strategies and tactics in action. And, at the product level, new metrics can build on and contextualize go-to tools such as the life-cycle assessment to understand the holistic impacts of design decisions. 

Here are some additional players I’m tracking in the circular metrics arena: 

  • Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute — Set to launch later this year, the fourth version of the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard will feature an updated Product Circularity category, focused on sourcing, design and systems. 

  • Global Reporting Initiative (PDF) — Launching its updated standard in Q1 of this year, GRI will be the first global standard that includes principles of circularity into waste disclosures, shifting the framing from an unwanted burden to a holistically managed material. 

  • UL Environment — Companies can pursue certification of UL 3600, which measures and reports on the circularity of products, facilities and organizations.  

  • U.S. Green Building Council — In late 2019, USGBC launched a circular economy pilot credit in its LEED rating system, which includes considerations of supply chain circularity, zero waste manufacturing, circular design and closed-loop systems. 

  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development — Set to launch next week at the World Economic Forum, Circular Transition Indicators provides a framework to assess a company’s circularity, and quantify the value of shifting towards more circular approaches. 

Each tool grounds a circular economy’s promise in data, breaking intentions and aspirations into the calculable, trackable and comparable bite-sized pieces that make up this new economic model. 

At all levels — systems, business and product — the development of specific and actionable metrics is a key accelerator for circularity at scale. Of course, the operative word is actionable. Quantifying circularity proves valuable only to the extent that they align with planetary boundaries and science-based climate targets.

Further, a myopic understanding of data points and material flows won’t define the future of circularity on its own. The human, on-the-ground realities of shifts and changes must be tracked and understood through a qualitative lens as well. 

To read more about the growth, potential and gaps within the emerging category of circular metrics, I invite you to read the 2020 State of Green Business report, released last week, in which GreenBiz identified circular metrics as one of 10 key sustainable business trends for the year ahead.


Posted on

Closing the loop on 2019

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

It’s been quite the year for circularity, one defined by ambitious goals, promising pilots, dynamic tensions and a growing sense of community. The momentum is palpable, and I can’t wait for the year ahead. Before we dive into a new decade, let’s revisit five of the most-read circular economy stories on GreenBiz from 2019, and the implications for circularity in 2020: 

1. Loop’s launch brings reusable packaging to the world’s biggest brands: The 2019 poster child of the circular economy brought together the largest brands to pilot new delivery models at scale. With Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky at its helm, Loop’s launch has been a go-to talking point for many on circularity’s potential. How is it going? It’s a story we’ll be tracking in 2020, with a particular focus on retail partnerships and consumer behavior change. 

2. The five things you need to know about chemical recycling: Spurred by the growing number of commitments by brands, retailers and other stakeholders to close the loop on plastics, the demand for recycled plastics is quickly increasing (PDF).

Enter a class of technologies that purify, decompose or convert waste plastics into like-new molecules that could help meet the growing demand for plastics and petrochemicals, and unlock potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion just in the United States and Canada, according to a report by Closed Loop Partners. However, the technologies, terminology and applications can be confusing and are not widely understood by all. How, and how quickly, will that change? We’ll be looking into that, and paying close attention to the growing number of investments and offtake agreements in this arena. 

3. The rise of plant-based plastic packaging: In the race to produce plastic packaging alternatives, bioplastics represent one approach that has gotten a lot of attention. They’re a type of plastic made from renewable biological sources, as opposed to traditional plastics, made from fossil fuels. The “bio” in bioplastics can run the gamut from vegetable oils and corn starches to food waste and agricultural leftovers, and these materials raise questions about scalability, end-of-life management and carbon footprint.

Will they make a dent in the new plastics economy? We’ll follow their progress, and weighing the benefits against other systemic implications. 

4. The circular economy giant you’ve never heard of is planning a major expansion: Providing crates, pallets and boxes to companies around the world to ship their stuff, CHEP, the supply-chain management arm of Australian logistics giant Brambles, specializes in reusable-packaging equipment.

An example of circularity at a massive scale, the company rents pallets and other tertiary packaging to customers and then collects almost every unit back after use to inspect, repair and send back out into the supply chain again. Will CHEP own the market or will others follow? We’ll be watching.

5. It’s time to trash recycling: Does recycling cycle materials back into supply chains, or enable companies to evade responsibility for unsustainable consumption patterns? Does it truly reduce waste streams?

Even though this article ran just this week, it’s already become one of our topic circularity stories of the year. Whether and how to reinvent recycling and will be key circular economy stories in 2020, along with approaches to creating end-markets for under-valued commodities. 

It will surprise few that most of the top-read circular stories of 2019 by and large focused on tackling the plastics and packaging problem. As a self-appointed steward of the circular economy narrative, I worry about over-emphasizing one piece of a new economic model, however vexing it may be. 

Circularity is about innovative business models and modes of consumption, new design strategies, product life extension, food waste and so much more. But for many, plastics and packaging is a gateway into the circularity conversation. It’s an accessible entry point into an aspirational model. But my hope is that once readers pass through this intellectual threshold, they will find dozens of other stories helping to define the circular economy. And we look forward to bringing them to you. 

Thanks for reading in 2019. Circular Weekly is taking a break for the holidays, but it will return to your inbox Jan. 10 to kick off a new year of stories, news, analysis and opinions about the circular economy. As yet another year circles back to a new beginning, I look forward to continuing to guide you through the ever-evolving and rapidly expanding circular economy landscape, and to helping its many stories unfold.