Closing the loop on 2019

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

It’s been quite the year for circularity, one defined by ambitious goals, promising pilots, dynamic tensions and a growing sense of community. The momentum is palpable, and I can’t wait for the year ahead. Before we dive into a new decade, let’s revisit five of the most-read circular economy stories on GreenBiz from 2019, and the implications for circularity in 2020: 

1. Loop’s launch brings reusable packaging to the world’s biggest brands: The 2019 poster child of the circular economy brought together the largest brands to pilot new delivery models at scale. With Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky at its helm, Loop’s launch has been a go-to talking point for many on circularity’s potential. How is it going? It’s a story we’ll be tracking in 2020, with a particular focus on retail partnerships and consumer behavior change. 

2. The five things you need to know about chemical recycling: Spurred by the growing number of commitments by brands, retailers and other stakeholders to close the loop on plastics, the demand for recycled plastics is quickly increasing (PDF).

Enter a class of technologies that purify, decompose or convert waste plastics into like-new molecules that could help meet the growing demand for plastics and petrochemicals, and unlock potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion just in the United States and Canada, according to a report by Closed Loop Partners. However, the technologies, terminology and applications can be confusing and are not widely understood by all. How, and how quickly, will that change? We’ll be looking into that, and paying close attention to the growing number of investments and offtake agreements in this arena. 

3. The rise of plant-based plastic packaging: In the race to produce plastic packaging alternatives, bioplastics represent one approach that has gotten a lot of attention. They’re a type of plastic made from renewable biological sources, as opposed to traditional plastics, made from fossil fuels. The “bio” in bioplastics can run the gamut from vegetable oils and corn starches to food waste and agricultural leftovers, and these materials raise questions about scalability, end-of-life management and carbon footprint.

Will they make a dent in the new plastics economy? We’ll follow their progress, and weighing the benefits against other systemic implications. 

4. The circular economy giant you’ve never heard of is planning a major expansion: Providing crates, pallets and boxes to companies around the world to ship their stuff, CHEP, the supply-chain management arm of Australian logistics giant Brambles, specializes in reusable-packaging equipment.

An example of circularity at a massive scale, the company rents pallets and other tertiary packaging to customers and then collects almost every unit back after use to inspect, repair and send back out into the supply chain again. Will CHEP own the market or will others follow? We’ll be watching.

5. It’s time to trash recycling: Does recycling cycle materials back into supply chains, or enable companies to evade responsibility for unsustainable consumption patterns? Does it truly reduce waste streams?

Even though this article ran just this week, it’s already become one of our topic circularity stories of the year. Whether and how to reinvent recycling and will be key circular economy stories in 2020, along with approaches to creating end-markets for under-valued commodities. 

It will surprise few that most of the top-read circular stories of 2019 by and large focused on tackling the plastics and packaging problem. As a self-appointed steward of the circular economy narrative, I worry about over-emphasizing one piece of a new economic model, however vexing it may be. 

Circularity is about innovative business models and modes of consumption, new design strategies, product life extension, food waste and so much more. But for many, plastics and packaging is a gateway into the circularity conversation. It’s an accessible entry point into an aspirational model. But my hope is that once readers pass through this intellectual threshold, they will find dozens of other stories helping to define the circular economy. And we look forward to bringing them to you. 

Thanks for reading in 2019. Circular Weekly is taking a break for the holidays, but it will return to your inbox Jan. 10 to kick off a new year of stories, news, analysis and opinions about the circular economy. As yet another year circles back to a new beginning, I look forward to continuing to guide you through the ever-evolving and rapidly expanding circular economy landscape, and to helping its many stories unfold.