This year's WasteExpo Collection & Transfer track includes a session titled "Closing the Loop: Where Do We Stand on Circular Economy?" The presentation will give attendees a look at recent initiatives undertaken by waste and recycling companies to drive the industry toward its elusive circular economy goal.
Waste360 recently sat down with two industry veterans who will be speaking during the session: Maite Quinn and Susan Robinson. Quinn is managing director of Closed Loop Partners and former director of business development and sales for Sims Metal Management. Robinson is federal public affairs director for Waste Management.
Waste360: Is it realistic to think that a circular economy can actually be achieved in the waste and recycling industry?
Maite Quinn: Yes, definitely. I've been working in the recycling industry for almost 20 years, and that has always been the goal, especially on the recycling side. As far as I can remember, we've been trying to achieve this because it represents the highest value for material, and it makes sense.
Susan Robinson: The idea of the circular economy is a captivating one because it creates an image of keeping things in motion. People enjoy the notion of a circular economy. But, in reality, I'd say that full circularity is aspirational, much in the same way that zero waste is aspirational.
Waste360: Why is it proving difficult to develop a circular economy in the waste and recycling industry? Are there market forces at work that are keeping it from happening?
Maite Quinn: I don't think anything will keep it from happening. The circular economy concept represents a new way of thinking, so it takes time. That's the main challenge: time. I think we're headed in the right direction. I think we're going to get there. We just have to realize that it's a new mindset, and any time there's a new mindset, it takes time to figure things out.
Susan Robinson: Time and time again, we're reminded that sustainable recycling requires sustainable economics, and in some instances, it's less expensive for manufacturers to use virgin resources than it is to use post-consumer recycled content. Also, in my 30-plus years in the industry, I've gained a lot of respect for the realities of human behavior and the basic desire for convenience in our daily lives. Sometimes we choose products and packages for convenience, not necessarily for their environmental attributes.
Then, there are the issues around the quality of materials. Those of us who live and breathe recycling every day think about this a lot, but most people have other things to worry about, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect everyone to become recycling experts.
Waste360: What are some key efforts being undertaken in the industry to push the circular economy effort forward?
Susan Robinson: We've seen a lot of activity over the last couple years. The first thing that's happening is a renewed focus on quality of material—focusing on having good end markets for materials and making sure that what we're collecting for recycling is of high quality. When we can reduce the amount of non-recyclable material that's collected, we can increase the recyclability of the right things, thus increasing that effort toward circularity.
The other thing that we're doing more is using the concept of lifecycle analysis to understand where we should be refocusing our time and effort. If we're only focusing on circularity as the goal without considering the practical environmental impacts of materials, we may not actually get the best environmental outcome. But with lifecycle analysis, we're using science to make the best decisions on handling materials.
Maite Quinn: One of the exciting things is that we're seeing brands come to the table—brands meaning the manufacturers of the products, the people who are actually making the materials to sell to post consumers. Over the past 10 years, I've noticed that the brands are really paying attention to this and getting involved. They're showing a real interest in adding recycled content. For instance, look at Nestlé, one of our partners—they recently committed to make 100 percent of their packaging recycled content. That's one great example of stepping up. Another is the Association of Plastic Recyclers' Demand Champions program.
Waste360: What types of takeaways can attendees expect from this WasteExpo session?
Susan Robinson: I think it's going to be an interesting session—to be able to look at some of the challenges and the opportunities and to really think carefully about the decisions that we make and the unintended consequences when we aren't careful in using science to evaluate how we manage materials and the decisions that we make in the short term for the long term. I would hope that we would come out of the session with that—the reminder of how important it is to be thinking more broadly about environmental solutions and decisions and using science to make those decisions, so that we're not just looking toward aspirational goals, but we're truly taking action based on what we know to be the best environmental optics to create the best environmental outcome.