Circularity Weekly: The human side of circular systems

Jay Owen Green Prosperity, SRI/ESG News, Resource Efficiency

The human side of circular systems

Over the past few years of covering the circular economy, I’ve tracked impressive innovations in materials, products, business models and processes — but innovation on how we treat people has been notably absent. That’s starting to change, as I noted in my essay, “The Circular Economy Shows Its Human Side,” in the 2021 State of Green Business report, released this week.

As companies, cities and countries embrace a more holistic understanding of sustainability and adopt circular principles, a growing number are recognizing the opportunity to drive social change in lockstep with an economic transformation that puts people at the center.

Consider sourcing and supply chains in a circular economy: If procurement no longer focuses exclusively on virgin materials, the conditions in which a child disassembles a smartphone can be as problematic as if that same child was mining cobalt in a conflict zone to make the smartphone in the first place. Corporate initiatives to center transparency and traceability in upstream operations to address human rights are beginning to turn downstream.

The best example I’ve seen of this is HP’s often-cited $2 million investment in a new plastics washing line in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to support the local collection of ocean-bound plastic. Working directly with waste collector communities through a partnership with First Mile Coalition, HP buys the plastic from a local business to use in its laptops and ink cartridges. HP is working to support the social infrastructure of plastic waste as well as the physical infrastructure of materials recovery, creating more than 1,000 new jobs along the way.

But job creation and social benefits aren’t limited to the Global South. The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan emphasizes the opportunity for social and economic development through circular value chains — to the tune of 700,000 new employment opportunities by 2030 in Europe alone.

From supply-chain transparency and economic empowerment to job creation and access to new circular models, the trend towards human-centered circular supply chains and economies is one I’m tracking in 2021.

Is your company centering people and prosperity in its circular economy strategy? Let me know at [email protected].

Speak now:  T O D A Y  is the speaker nomination deadline for the Circularity conference, taking place online June 15-17. Submit your nomination now!

One more thing: GreenBiz is hiring a Startups Program Manager. Please share the role with the job-seeking innovation-enthusiast in your life.

Now, on to this week’s list of stories worth reading, curated by my brilliant colleague Suz Okie.

Weekly Roundup 

A collection of news and stories worth reading, by Circular Economy Analyst Suz Okie: 

  • Just 8.6 percent of the global economy is circular, compared to 9.1 percent two years ago — according to the 2021 Circularity Gap Report. If we can reverse this backwards trend, circular principles have the power to reduce global GHG emissions by 39 percent (via Circle Economy).
  • A crowded agenda may delay the Biden administration’s action on national recycling legislation — but bipartisan support suggests delays won’t be indefinite. Multiple bills supporting recycling education, infrastructure and EPR (extended producer responsibility) are likely to resurface in the coming year (via Waste Dive).
  • If Albuquerque, New Mexico is any indicator, recycling education couldn’t come soon enough. Thanks to a habit called “wishful recycling,” 32 percent of their citizens’ blue bins’ content is trash — making recycling increasingly more expensive (via Daily Lobo).
  • Investing $100M into “The Green Machine,” The H&M Foundation is betting big on a blended fabric recycling technology that could cost effectively recycle 1.5 tons of textiles per day — now if only they’d tackle the root of the problem, over consumption and fast fashion (via Fast Company).
  • Transforming agricultural waste into fashionable fibers, Agraloop is a closed loop system that’s already in high demand —  H&M is among the first customers (via Cool Hunting).
  • Fixers rejoice! Right to Repair legislation is gaining traction after scoring an endorsement from a California recycling commission (via E-scrap News).
  • 1.2M lbs of would-be-discarded food surplus is being upcycled annually into purees and broths by female-founded Matriark, proving food waste can be tackled at scale (via Waste 360).
  • Despite the challenge of varying definitions, firms like BlackRock are investing in “circular.” This trend is expected to accelerate with the help of EU legislation (via Citywire Selector).
  • Dunkin’ Donuts is piloting a canola-oil-derived, biodegradable straw that breaks down in home composting, and even the ocean. Is this the solution to single use plastics we’ve all been waiting for? Call me skeptical (via Forbes).