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When Will We Truly Begin Designing for Circularity?

L-R: Savers' Tony Shumpert, Recycle BC's Allen Langdon, Bank and Vogue's Steven Bethell, Brambles' Suzanne Lindsay-Walker, Keurig Green Mountain's Monique Oxender and Levi Strauss' Kyle Rudzinski discuss new collaboration models for a circular economy at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

If I took one thing away from the Circular Economy sessions at SB’18 Vancouver, it was the need to design for the end of a product’s first life. Note I said, “first life,” because ideally it will be endlessly recycled. That said, as new products come online, designers need to be asking, what materials are we using? Can the product itself be reused like the very cool fashion pieces curated by Beyond Retro (a Bank & Vogue LTD company), or will it be recycled and recreated like Brambles’ packaging solutions? If it is recycled, are there systems in place to collect it, recycle it, and perhaps most importantly — is there a consistent buyer for the material?

Contemplating these questions and design choices, it occurred to me that in an ever-changing landscape this can be difficult. Take for instance the strong attempt by Keurig Green Mountain to create a recyclable plastic K-Cup. In one of her sessions, Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer at Keurig, shared the long redesign process that the company launched in Canada, testing it in recycling facilities to see what color and configuration (in a bag, out, etc) worked best, and has converted almost all of Canada to the new cup. Two thoughts came to mind: I recently visited a relative who had a Keurig machine and had no idea the cups were recyclable (because the trash was full of them). Second, if the consumer gets it and actually recycles the cup, is there a market for the plastic? China’s strict recycling laws are having a huge impact across Canadian cities; so for now, like in the U.S., plastic is being stockpiled or perhaps even sent to landfill. In the end, this recycled plastic solution seems no better than the orginal Keurig Cup.



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Plastic, the miracle material — so light, inexpensive and versatile in its use, it revolutionized our lives. This fossil fuel-based material, used to make everything from chairs to water bottles to children’s toys, remains persistent in the environment. Since production began, we have produced about 9.2 billion tons, 6.9 billion tons of which have become waste. A staggering amount shows up in our oceans in the form of microplastics, plastics less than 5 mm, that include microbeads – intentionally designed to be tiny – fragments, foam, sheets, granules and fibers. In fact, so much plastic has made its way into our oceans that it is believed by 2050, pound for pound, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish.

So how do we solve for this dilemna? Think of the end game?

“I’m in awe, truly. I think it’s amazing when people create a new material, but I’ll confess the first thing that comes to my mind is, ‘where is this going to go in the waste stream?’” — Lewis Perkins, President, Cradle to Cradle Product Innovations Institute

Considering waste stream and recyclability is certainly a critical step but when we consider plastics, which are seemingly recyclable, it becomes clear the problem is deeper. Two speakers drove this point home.

“Recycling alone will not solve the problem of plastic in the ocean. Corporations need to break free from plastic.” — Froilan Grate, Executive Director, GAIA Philippines

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. Somewhere along the way we forgot that the first two are way more important than the last one. We have instead pursued the last one with gusto.” — Matt Prindiville, Executive Director, Upstream

Fortunately, the need to reduce and reuse is understood and change is coming at what Forum for the Future CEO Sally Uren describes as the critical levels for successful change– landscape, regime and niche.

Landscape: The big picture 'operating context' of long-term mega-trends and shared social values. Regime: The mainstream, day-to-day 'business as usual'. Niche: The margins of the mainstream - social and technical innovations.
Click to enlarge. | Image credit: Forum for the Future

From London, England to Oakland, California, levies and bans are being placed to curb our reliance on single-use plastics. People are growing increasingly tired of having to throw away their cups, straws, containers after just one use. While we want the convenience, we don’t want the waste. The market demand, combined with policy pressure, is driving companies to seek creative solutions that allow for convenience without the environmental impact. Upstream’s BAN List 2.0 (Better Alternatives Now) identifies the top 20 plastic products that pollute U.S. waterways and need to be redesigned or eliminated completely. Not surprisingly, the vast majority are food- and beverage-related.

Everything from ketchup packets to straws to our beloved coffee cup is up for a redesign. My favorite solution from SB’18 Vancouver was CupClub, a London-based startup that has created the perfect to-go coffee cup system.

Designed to look just like your favourite to-go cup, CupClub can hold hot and cold beverages. The cups are distributed to coffee shops and used just as normal coffee cups. Instead of throwing them away, the delivery box turns into the “waste” collection receptacle, cups are picked up, cleaned and distributed for use again. Designed for hundreds of uses, this cool cup gets my vote.

While the thinking shared during SB’18 Vancouver was inspiring, true circularity still appears to be a moonshot goal for companies. If we are going to create a truly circular economy, we need to follow the life of products, and the materials from which they are made, from creation, to use, to recovery, back to creation.


Nicole Palkovsky advises small businesses and nonprofits on creating sustainability strategies that are innovative, create business value and drive performance across their organizations. She currently leads Ronald McDonald House Charities' Environmental Sustainability Program, directing a team of talented professionals… [Read more about Nicole Palkovsky]


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