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Episode 133: Building Reuse at Scale

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In this week’s episode of NothingWasted!, you will hear from Meagan Knowlton, director of sustainability at Optoro. We spoke with Meagan about leveraging AI to fuel reuse, the power of donation channels to keep returns out of landfills, the importance of engaging with consumers to optimize circularity and more.

Optoro uses data and real-time decision-making to make better returns for customers, retailers, and the planet. Its technology reduces landfill waste by “providing seamless ways for retailers to route each returned item to its next best home.”

Here is a glimpse into the discussion:

Waste360: You recently noted that every year 5.8 billion pounds of retail returns and excess inventory end up in landfills. That’s such a staggering number. How do you think retailers can be more circular?

Knowlton: That’s a great question partly because you included sustainability and circulatory in the same sentence—and they don’t always necessarily go hand in hand. I love what I get to work on because it’s reducing product waste from landfills and keeping those products in the reuse system. What I focus on is: how can we keep both products and packaging in a reuse system for as long as possible and making it to the next consumer as long as possible. And, there are a few key areas where brands can focus. First, around design and sourcing materials that make a product and its packaging more durable. After that design phase, you also want to think about the use phase and how consumers interact with the product. So there are lots of different ways retailers can do this, but what I am so fascinated by is using technology to keep products in use. 

Waste360: Can you share an example of how this works?

Knowlton: At Optoro, we make returns technology that helps retailers along the entire lifecycle of a product’s return journey. So first it starts with returns initiation through an online portal—then there’s kind of the core of our work, which is with returns processing and dispositioning. This basically means that we make technology that allows our clients to bring back returns and then make the best decisions for where the next best home is for that product. We use AI and data science to determine this—should it be sold in a variety of different marketplaces, should it be listed back in stock for that retailer, should it be donated or recycled, and so on. The next piece of what we do is in that retail or ecommerce area. We integrate into a number of resale marketplaces and also have our own resale marketplace that sells to a number of mom-and-pop retailers. These offerings are super-helpful for building reuse at sale—being able to build out systems.

Waste360: Can you talk about some of the brands you work with?

Knowlton: One thing I get to do is create alternate disposition channels for our client retailers. We work with IKEA, American Eagle, Best Buy, a number of different brands and retailers including some of the largest in the U.S. And one of the things I get to help them with is standing up donation and recycling channels to supplement retail or listing-back-to-stock channels. So I get to be the bridge between our clients and donation channels and charities. One example is with IKEA in the U.S., we’ve been working on an automated donation program for them. 

Waste360: What’s next, and what trends are you paying attention to?

Knowlton: There’s such a focus now on circular models in fashion and apparel, so I’m really looking at that. I’m enjoyed digging into that space and the reporting coming out of it, including the rise of secondhand. Another key thing to keep an eye on is regulation and climate action. There’s been a lot of activity in the past year and discussions on extended producer responsibility. There will be change coming for the retail industry.

Listen to the full episode above.

Read the transcript here.

#NothingWastedPodcast

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