Zero Waste: Five Ways to Achieve a Circular Economy in Five Years

In a previous post, we asked the question of whether a holistic circular economy can exist. The question is not so much whether it can; it is more answered with the simple reply that it must. At this particular point, we do not have choices, just options. The terminology can be confusing: Zero Waste is not the absence of waste, Sustainability is not a balancing act if we are simply trying to find new replacement resources or manage damaged ones and a circular economy is not a new kind of economy.

Instead, a circular economy (CE) is an economy in need of different solutions to what have become environmental problems, solutions that require a different approach. CE will happen at the governmental level, at the corporate level and at the consumer level and, here’s the hard part, in a coordinated effort, all at once.

There have been numerous articles published since the terminology entered our lexicon several years back suggesting that there are numerous barriers and obstacles to getting all of these groups in alignment. I disagree. So I thought I would take a moment to offer five ways to get to CE in five years.

Is a Circular Economy Different?

As a refresher: A Circular Economy is not a new kind of economy. If the definitions Prateek Agarwal of the Intelligent Economist encapsulate the four basic types of economies: the Traditional Economy is one where participants will most likely exist in a rural or second/third world setting but lack technology which differs greatly from a Command Economy, think U.S.S.R. A Market Economy suggests an absolute line between government interference or oversight, an idealized approach to business that favors those who make the market not the participants. And a mix of these economies where some regulation or oversight to ensure that fairness and safety are present for all members would be closest to defining a circular economy – an economy where everyone pays and at the same time, benefits.

CE in FiveSteps

One: We need to stop looking to the recyclers to help. In almost every market area in the U.S., recycling everything from organic material to plastic wrap is either non-existent or at the breaking point. There does not seem to be any in-between. China’s National Sword did not help matters. It did provide a scapegoat of sorts as we framed the argument that it wasn’t us, we were not necessarily at fault. We have recyclable material – warehouses full. But the mixed economy our country uses has pushed companies to consider using virgin material instead, in part because of costs. A circular economy understands these costs. Is it as simple as requiring the use of more post consumer material in products?

Two: Consumers are the heart and soul of any change. Just as with all economies, prices make the market. However, sentiment is becoming a bigger driver. In many parts of the country, consumers do have access to a wide range of recyclable options and in many of those communities, progress is being made. Except with plastic. However, a circular economy would solve one of the most vexing issues we face as a result of the overseas export ban. Some critics of argue that laying this issue at the feet of the consumer will not work. They will not buy the story, they say, only the price point. The consumer is the story.

Three: I have written about this before: Posted on a large white board in my former office I had written that “convenience is the destination, not the journey.” This is a version of unspoken expectations. Because we are accustomed to each step of any process to be easier than the previous level, we can feel unfulfilled if the results are not immediately measurable and those metrics do not point towards savings. In fact, most CE roadblocks are not financial. Something someone suggested our current approach is like expecting a paved road in the jungle. Embracing the idea that this effort will be extremely hard will help as businesses wrap their collective heads around the subject. All of the stakeholders must be clear on the destination and willing to sacrifice to get there.

Four: That “collective head” is almost always where this effort loses its forward momentum. That’s unfortunate. I have often found that diverse business arrangements can create new processes that will benefit the whole community. These arrangements are always based on a level of creativity that demands a CE mediator. This person(s) – and yes, that is what we try to do at Zero Waste Consultants LLC – steps back from the problem and analyzes the options, develops the partnerships and ultimately projects the costs. I know all too well,  finding creative options while sitting inside the corporate walls is easier said than done. It will also take the trust of leadership to pass some of this decision making to managers who are fluent in the issue, persons who understand that the risk is not doing something that might fail, it is not taking the risk at all.  The “collective head” must be the internal leadership of a business willing to engage other businesses, government entities, waste professionals and logistical experts beyond their own comfort.

Five: All stakeholders need to understand that failure is not an option. While focusing on profits is important, not embracing CE now will have a long range impact on the bottom line.

Five years is not that far away. Companies might be surprised to find out that the solution to your zero waste goals is already in existence. The innovation is already here. In order for CE to work, companies, governments and consumers need to marry their good intentions with those possibilities.

Creating a circular economy will require an alignment with business, government, the consumer, our expectations and creative leadership. A circular economy is not a new kind of economy. It is an economy that cannot fail.

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