With the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration exceeding what is considered a permanent threshold at 400ppm last month, there’s now more cause than ever to think a little differently about where we’re going – and that’s what the push toward the “circular economy” is all about. Companies and consumers are now thinking not just about the sustainability of their purchases for the planet, but are also looking at ways to help renew the natural environment through their supply chain choices.
When companies purchase with the goal of contributing to a circular economy, they are typically purchasing something originating from what would traditionally have been waste, used in an innovative way. Most often, this sourcing is understood to go beyond products from traditional recycling streams (e.g. recycled paper and plastics), employing materials or inputs that would otherwise have been left to generate some form of pollution.
The following are a few examples of how companies are driving circular economy initiatives through their supply chain choices:
Although not yet a huge portion of the market, some companies are producing paper from agricultural waste, such as sugarcane waste and wheat straw. Much agricultural waste is normally burned, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By using the agri-waste for paper, some emissions from its disposal are actually avoided, while forests are conserved.
Similarly, innovative food companies are now using ingredients that would traditionally be considered food waste to create desirable products, such as teas, jams, and even chocolate whisky. Given the lower cost to these inputs (often only involving time spent to collect or retrieve them) using food waste as an input lends itself well to small and medium sized enterprises, thus having a dual benefit of promoting local economic development where they are located.
Method, a home and body care product company, have packaged their ocean plastic 2-in-1 dish + hand soap in bottles made from recovered sea plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic. They partnered with local beach clean up groups in Hawaii to source the plastic for their bottles, thereby decreasing plastic pollution in our oceans.
Clothing companies using recovered plastics are more controversial, given recent concerns about tiny plastic fibres entering our water system when synthetic fibres are laundered, but they may at least present an opportunity to use some of the plastic that is already in our oceans, while we transition to more preferable materials for textiles across the board. Bionic Yarn, a textile company that sources the material used to make its unique yarns from recovered plastic. The company has partnered with nonprofit Parley for the Oceans to source plastic recovered from the sea, thereby avoiding the use of new materials, while helping to clean up this big problem for our oceans. Bionic has also created partnerships with big brands downstream in the supply chain, such as adidas and G-Star Raw, to make apparel and shoe products with their yarns.
Diverting waste from landfills and recycling systems into the supply chain is not a perfect environmental solution to over-consumption, but it certainly conserves new material inputs and reduces negative impacts from existing waste – and this renews our conviction in the positive potential of the supply chain.