Recently, the sustainability media has been publishing articles about the circular economy, including recent case study initiatives from companies like Intel, Eileen Fisher, Johnson Controls, PwC, and HP.

The conclusion here is that the circular economy is not new anymore. It is mainstream. In fact, in my couple years working for Sustainability Advantage from 2016 to 2017, it was a common topic among our “sustainability champions”. Even environment managers who had never heard of the term before, were working tirelessly to find financial value from selling their waste streams. We told them what they are doing is called “circular economy”, and they ran with it.

It is self explanatory how reducing waste is excellent for the environment: pollution, and the need to reallocate land to toxic uses such as landfill, goes down. A social benefit is reduced unemployment, as social enterprises can often take and repurpose the waste. Finally, the economic benefit is as obvious as it is for the environment: there is a huge opportunity for economic efficiency by having more resources available when waste is repurposed as such.

Linked to the economic value, there is also a business opportunity: a lower cost of resources, or a reduced cost of waste disposal that could even be an income generator if the right partnership is formed.

The intention to pursue circular economy opportunities is the easiest part. The hardest part is finding the right idea or project, and then its implementation and launch. That is why the real value of these “circular economy is the next big thing” articles is the innovative, inspirational ideas from each of the companies.

So here are five case studies:

Eileen Fisher has a program called “Green Eileen”, a take-back program for Eileen Fisher clothing that incentivises participation with store credit. It upgraded this program this year, to focus on reselling, repairing and renewing existing product. (GreenBiz)

Intel developed a technology to recycle solid copper waste from the production of semiconductors. It has returned this copper to the materials market, including for its own use. (GreenBiz)

Johnson Controls has incorporated circular economy into its design, by not only ensuring that 99 percent of its automotive batteries have recyclable materials, but building partnerships with logistics partners, suppliers and customers to make this possible. (GreenBiz)

PwC, the professional services firm, apparently “uses cooking fat from its canteens and other kitchens to fuel its offices” in the UK. Now that is impressive. That is innovative for an office-based organisation. It also does typical stuff like reuse and remanufacture office furniture, as well as donate to charity. (Thomson Reuters)

HP is now producing printer cartridges made from plastic that comes from Haiti. Coming from Haiti, there is a clear social and economic benefit, their pollution problem is reduced and two not-for-profits will be engaged to develop micro and small-to-medium enterprises for collecting this waste. It also involves job training for landfill workers. (Triple Pundit)

Inspired by what is possible? Here are some things you can do:

  • Identify your organisation or department’s main waste streams in a waste audit. Analyse what kind of applications this material could have, and start a open conversation with them.
  • Create a network of environmental managers in your region to discuss and share waste challenges, and capitalise on the power of the group to identify potential applications for the waste streams.
  • Look at your production processes and analyse what could be replaced with recycled material.

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