January 28, 2020


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Transitioning from a linear, take-make-dispose economy to a closed loop, zero waste circular economy encourages businesses to design longer lasting, reusable, and more easily recyclable products. This evolution can also result in the expansion of reuse and remanufacturing sectors as well as new value chains and markets. While engagement in the circular economy is becoming commonplace in Europe, more evidence and support are needed to build and illustrate the North American business case, along with practical steps and actions to mainstream circularity.

This report by Navigant – a Guidehouse Company and its research partner, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, describes the economic and environmental benefits and winning strategies for businesses to put the circular economy into practice in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Region (GLR). In particular, the quantitative research in this report focuses on three core materials—steel, plastics, and pulp and paper—that extrapolate from European trends to predict outcomes and economic and environmental opportunities of the circular economy in the GLR.

Results demonstrate vast economic and environmental benefits for adopting a circular economy in the GLR. Among the three materials studied, the economic benefits range between $4.4 billion to $5 billion USD. The environmental benefits are equally advantageous, with reductions in greenhouse gas emissions ranging from 35 million to 120 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2). This reduction would be equivalent to taking 7.5 million to 25.5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.

The report also identifies five actions for scaling the circular economy in the GLR:

  • Embrace the broader aspects of circularity: In addition to the environmental and economic benefits, the circular economy brings positive impacts through job creation, GDP growth, and alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Companies can support these broader societal outcomes through actions such as providing job trainings that prepare the workforce for new circular business models, and improving a number of environmental metrics, including cleaner air, water, and soil.
  • Encourage partnerships and collaboration: Corporate support for models that foster circularity and collaboration can lead to the increased adoption of circular practices across all sectors. U.S. businesses can also join local partnerships to grow the circular economy ecosystem through their local chambers, economic development offices, or regional sustainable business forums.
  • Align the circular economy with mainstream practices: Rather than starting from scratch, stakeholders can apply circular perspectives to their existing practices or find alignment with broader programs and activities across their community or region that are working toward the same circularity goal.
  • Develop traceable actions and targets: Setting clear goals and measuring progress are essential to the advancement of the circular economy. For example, in 2017, Clearwater Paper set a target to increase the post-consumer recycled fiber (PCF) in its cups. In 2019, the company launched a new brand of cup, NuVo®, with 32% more PCF content. The increase in PCF made it possible to not only improve recyclability, but also reduce ink usage by 50%, and increase cup per minute manufacturing speed by 27%.
  • Develop incentive mechanisms: States and localities can offer companies incentives that improve their recycling processes, technologies, and yields (e.g. reducing loss of steel scrap or increasing chemical recycling of plastic) to help green their value chain.

Within this report, explore case studies demonstrating best practices from organizations including Kohler, Steelcase, Whirlpool Corporation, Clearwater Paper, Procter & Gamble, Sappi North America, WestRock, Schnitzer Steel, and Dow.

The report is made possible through funding from American Forest and Paper Association, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, Kohler, Steelcase, and Whirlpool.