A global circularity journey has begun. I feel optimistic as I left Circularity22 where an overwhelming amount of expertise, perspectives, and vision were presented and exchanged.

The good news is that we, as the global circularity community seemed to be headed in the right direction. Most of us agreed that now is the time to pivot. Even better, some of us, such as the circularity pioneers, experts, and talents seemed to know how to get there. We agreed that systems change is elusive yet a must. We have a shared understanding of what barriers are there to overcome. The question remains. Why aren’t we there yet? 

Circularity22 left me with clarity on what some of the bottlenecks are. And what needs to happen to shift the circular economy into reality and accelerate our transformation toward full circularity. We need new behaviors around consumption and waste. 

Recycling is not guilt-free (1)

95% of people in the U.S. believe recycling is good for the environment and in fact, 76% think recycling makes us feel better about all the stuff we buy.

Green Biz

According to Suzanne Shelton of Shelton Group, people think that way because companies and brands have taught them that for over 40 years. As a result, recycling has become guilt-free in people’s minds. The reality is, however, that recycling is not the best solution for the current crisis, nor it is done right. There are 9,000 recycling programs in the U.S. independently functioning which causes inefficiencies and confusion. 

Recycling is no longer a free pass. We cannot afford to be stuck in the old mindset with a distorted view of whether we are doing enough for the environment or doing it right. To fix the recycling issue, we need to have a comprehensive reframe of recycling by changing our narrative from “end of life” to “end of cycle.” Our public perception about purchasing, consumption, and waste needs to change with the times in our marketing campaigns, packaging designs, and municipal programs. And as Suzanne reminded us, messages do matter. “Don’t let your brand be a baby wrapped in plastic!” 

Repairing the system is a requisite (2)

Today, the global economy is only 8.5% circular. More than 90% of the resources do not return to the production cycles and become waste. How do we become 1% more circular around the world before the end of the year, to get past 10% global circularity?

The Circularity Gap Report

Recyclability is a baseline. Making materials recyclable or using only mono materials is only a small portion of reducing the environmental footprint. Emerging legislation that mandates repairability on products is a significant step forward but nearly enough. As Asha Agrawal from Patagonia put it candidly, the north star is reducing production and reducing consumption at the same time to shift the whole business and scale global impact. In other words, we need to repair the way products are made and consumed. Every part of the value chain should be completely redesigned. In a way, we can embed circular thinking into a brand ethos, manufacturing process, and consumption cycle. Instead of designing more sustainable packaging, what about moving away from it entirely? What if companies offer more services instead of products?

To do more for system-wide improvement, not only we need to work together at a community or country level. But also we must agree on a global framework that works for all stakeholders – companies, NGOs, communities, and citizens. Erin Simon from WWF emphasized that we now are given a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to make the systemic change.

In March 2022, the UN’s 175 world leaders voted in favor of a Global Treaty on Plastic, which brings this momentum and an incredible opportunity to solve the plastic crisis.

World Wild Life

In the coming years, we will see more policies that support new business models. Or innovative ways to reduce resource use and keep valuable materials in the loop. Especially if governments and companies can take collective action. To seize this unprecedented chance, Erin urged the private sector should amplify its sustainability commitment and execute more concrete action by co-designing and advocating for policies that can enable circular systems.  

Redefine “Consumers” (3)

Sustainability has become mainstream and more people are making purchase decisions based on sustainability. According to a 2020 consumer study, 57% of global consumers will change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact. In another study, 74% of consumers across the U.S., Europe, and South America said they would pay more for sustainable packaging. And 25% are willing to pay an additional 10% or more.  

Without a doubt, consumer plays a huge role in the circular economy. Companies, brands, lawmakers, academics, and circularity practitioners all talk about how to effectively engage consumers, change their behavior, and incentivize them for new behavior. When a consumer is unfamiliar or unwilling to participate, circular initiatives and business models can fail. David Hirschler (from ERI, the largest IT and electronics asset disposition provider in the U.S.) said consumers’ distrust and skepticism can be a barrier to e-waste recycling when separating valuable materials from wastes and funneling them back to where they are needed. 

Consumers as active contributors

As we rethink our consumption patterns, industry processes, and the entire economic model toward real circularity, it seems only fair to rethink the meaning of a “consumer.” Conventionally, we consider “consumers” as static, passive, and two-dimensional entities in the economy. Convenient, lazy, but much outdated. The circular economy should redefine consumers as active contributors and dynamic participants in the circular economy. Rather than passive recipients of bland, lifeless solutions that will fail to live long. Successful circular products and services require a fresh eye into our behaviors that are complex and irrational. There is no “one size fits all” for human behaviors. Instead of striving for the perfect solution, we need to constantly learn, adjust and evolve by integrating people throughout the process of creating a new economy and new economic behaviors. We just need to move quicker. 

Do you want to know more about Circularity 22? Read Sarah’s recap.

Eunji Park Profile image

Eunji Park

Strategic Design

Eunji is a strategic mind and design lead, who implements interdisciplinary research and systems thinking approach to design and innovation processes.

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