September 28, 2020
By Kirstie Dabbs
New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions. A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.
What is the Circular Economy?
Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources. Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources from the earth to make products which are then purchased and used until disposal, a circular economy would follow three core principles to extend existing resource value and reduce the need to extract new resources:
- Design out waste.
- Keep products and materials in use.
- Regenerate natural systems.
These three principles create opportunities for waste reduction—and even elimination— from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.
In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture its products using recycled material – or better yet—material that is a byproduct of another production process, a company intercepts the waste stream. This reduces waste going to landfill and is directly in line with the City’s waste-reduction goal.
Companies can also choose to manufacture using strictly bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life. WinCup and Eco-Products are companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports the City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.
Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand
In addition to using material design tactics to divert material from the waste stream, companies can use design and marketing strategies to keep their products from being thrown away at all. Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product. Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation. According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.
How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the International Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.” A recent press release from the World Economic Forum summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”
New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy
Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles. According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners, an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy, the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.
Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month. One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.
The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.