Design and Produce to Recycle: Three Steps toward a Circular Economy

Keefe Harrison

As the world reckons with and eventually recovers from the impacts of coronavirus, we need solutions to repair our economy in a way that protects the planet and its people. That’s what a circular economy is all about -- shifting away from the current linear "take-make-waste" approach and instead putting forth a circular system where the environmental and economic burden of waste is erased.

A circular economy and recycling are not the same thing. Recycling can happen without a circular economy, but a circular economy cannot happen without recycling. Community recycling programs are currently the only consumer-facing, large scale mechanism to capture materials at the end of their use cycle so that they can be made into new products, without extracting additional precious natural resources. In practical terms, the recycling system is a cornerstone of a circular economy and the gateway for Americans to engage in that system.

As companies ramp up their circular economy goals (a good thing for our environment) the U.S. recycling system needs to evolve in order to deliver strong returns. Consider the following statistics from The Recycling Partnership's recent State of Curbside Recycling Report:

  • More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are sent to landfills annually. Curbside recycling in the United States currently recovers only 32 percent of available recyclables in single-family homes. If the remaining 20 million tons were recycled, it would generate 370,000 full time jobs, reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons, conserve an energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil annually, which is equal to removing 20 million cars from U.S. roadways.
  • While recycling feels universal, only half of the American population has access to curbside recycling. Before we can implore a public to recycle, they need to be guaranteed the ability to do so.
  • Many communities increasingly pay more to recycle, sometimes double the cost of landfilling -- and many more programs lack critical operating funds. Policy can and should help community recycling programs to improve by addressing challenging market conditions, providing adequate funding support, and resolving cheap dump fees that make landfill disposal asignificantly less expensive option than recycling.

What would it take to put this new circular economy to work in the U.S.? As detailed in the Bridge to Circularity Report, it would take a substantial investment and effort in three key areas:

1. Support local recycling programs with policies and capital

Local political support for recycling needs to be strengthened  so municipalities are able to meet the expectations of most Americans -- recycling bins that sit alongside trash cans, and the contents of which are actually being recycled. On a federal level, recycling needs to be supported with policies that incentivize its adoption.

Local and federal support also includes continued innovation in the collection, sorting, general recyclability of materials, and the adding of new recyclable materials into the system.

2. Significant investment in domestic infrastructure

An extensive series of targeted investments is needed to integrate  necessary equipment and vehicles into the supply chain for collection and for facilities to recycle old products into new materials.

3. Broad stakeholder engagement

Some companies are stepping up to the challenge, but we've got a long way to go before every company that markets a product commits to making sure it doesn't end up in a landfill as waste. Every aspect of the recycling system needs to be involved -- from the design of the materials on store shelves to the community, infrastructure, and end markets.

The shift to the circular economy is underway and should be amplified. The public is calling for public-private solutions to address the climate crisis and a critical component of that work is overhauling the way we manufacture goods. It's an economic shift that could pay back environmental dividends for generations to come. It’s also doable -- we can commit to this better way of doing things.

The time to transform the way we think about and manage waste is now. The fate of current and not-yet-recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must adapt to support the transition. A circular approach aligns the efforts from all sectors of our economy -- manufacturers, brands, and retailers all have a seat at this constructive table.

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