5 Key Steps to Transform Circular Ideas Into Action


Five takeaways from the Foundation's 2017 Circular Economy Summit, steps to turn circular ideas into action.

The theme of this year’s Circular Economy (CE) Summit—“From Aspiration to Implementation”—captured both the yearning and the necessity to translate the noble ideals of circular thinking into tangible operation. Having recently started in the role of Senior Coordinator for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Sustainability and Circular Economy Program, I am a sponge soaking up as much circular economy knowledge as possible, so I was excited to attend the Summit and hear about the successes and challenges of putting these ideas into action.

Here are my five takeaways from the Summit:

  1. The importance of partners. From maintenance to remanufacture to collection, there are so many parts of the circular economy system that it is near impossible for any one company to master every facet of it. Optoro and UPS realized that to optimize reverse logistics—the transportation and disposition of returns and excess inventory—they should join forces. Optoro brings its software platform and UPS brings its operational and logistics expertise. Optoro’s Senior Director of Product Marketing and Partnerships, Jon So, and UPS’ Director of Global Sustainability, Patrick Browne, explained that their partnership works because their values and visions align, their communication is strong, and they had great chemistry from the outset. Coincidentally, I also want these attributes in my next relationship.
  2. Communicating to consumers is difficult. One major aspect of CE is recycling but many consumers still do not understand what can and cannot be recycled. Megan Maltenfort, Senior Manager for Corporate Social Responsibility at Campbell Soup Company, mentioned to me over lunch that Campbell’s is starting to use the How2Recycle label. This label explains how to prepare the material for recycling (e.g., remove the cap), whether it can be recycled via traditional means (e.g., needs to be dropped off at the store), and of what type of material the packaging is made. So much more informative than only the recycling logo with the grade of plastic that, let’s be honest, basically nobody understands.
  3. Scientific innovation is critical to the advancement of the circular economy. The Summit provided another reason for me to kick myself for not taking more science while in school. Scientific advancement in CE abounds. In a working session titled “Moving from Prototype to Mainstream in Renewable Energy,” Dr. Stephen Clarke, Chairman and CEO of Aqua Metals, regaled us with how his company has developed an electrochemical process that can recycle lead without the dirty fuels from smelting. The best part about this innovation is that it does not just have environmental benefits (no toxic or fugitive emissions), but it also leads to a better, less expensive product. I love the win-win!
  4. Baby steps and pilot projects are key. In his keynote, TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky emphasized that with large organizations, it is important to put a dream out there but also put little steps along the way with clear return on investment (ROI). As an example, he explained how Procter & Gamble wanted to help address the issue of plastics in the oceans, and he worked with them to develop a shampoo bottle made with up to 25% recycled beach plastic. The initial run was only a baby step of 150,000 bottles, but the ROI was seen quickly when the announcement at Davos led to five million social media impressions since January. No doubt Procter & Gamble will now scale up production of this bottle, putting it Head & Shoulders above the competition.
  5. Include a human element in your messaging. A lot of the circular economy literature involves dense reports or diagrams. This kind of communication can be confusing to the average person. In contrast, showing the human side can lead to people relating to, remembering, and reiterating the message. Elizabeth Calvez, Manager of External Communications at DSM-North America, put together a campaign where they turned the camera on to the scientists so that they could engage directly with consumers and do so in a way that brings their products to life. I later watched a touching video on DSM’s YouTube channel about Eileen Bailey, a DSM scientist who grew up near the ocean and had a father who planted the seed in her head that a woman could be a scientist when he told her about Marie Curie’s work with radioactivity. Today, she herself is a scientist whose work relates to the ocean; since at DSM, she developed a finger stick assay for measuring omega-3 status in a drop of blood. Funny how people circle back (see what I did there?) to interests they had early in life.

I am excited to be working in an innovative and meaningful space. There are many challenges to implementing circular principles, but as we collectively try to do so, we can learn from each other. Now working for the Chamber Foundation, I am eager to provide more programming to facilitate this learning and sharing of ideas. For more information on upcoming events and opportunities, visit our website here.