Change is rooted in a typical New Year’s Resolution. We seek to turn a negative into a positive, or we set new life conditions to accomplish a personal goal. As we head into 2021 and a most welcomed New Year, consider changes to practice circularity in your everyday activities. Take the principles of the circular economy – design out waste, extend the use of products, and restore natural ecosystems – and apply them to your daily routines. Not only will you help to eliminate pollution, conserve resources, and reduce environmental burdens, but you will also be rewarded by cutting waste and saving money.
An example for designing out waste is declining bags at the supermarket checkout. In the United States, over 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used annually at an average of 12 minutes each. Yet only 10% of them are recycled, putting 90% into landfill or other undesired places with an estimation of 500+ years needed for their decomposition. As an alternative system for getting your groceries from the cart to home, see if the cashier can keep the items in the cart and use the handheld scanner. In my experience, cashiers can quickly and accurately scan and record all items in the cart with minimum handling. This eliminates 3 moves of each item: transfer from cart to scanning belt, move from scan to bagging area, and placement inside a bag; there may be a few exceptions for items that need to be weighed first. In addition to eliminating the bag cost and its eventual waste, time is saved, food quality is preserved with less contact, and customers are pleased with the checkout speed. With the average supermarket sales of $38.41 per customer transaction, most cart loads can take full advantage of these no-touch, no-bag benefits.
Then when reaching the car in the parking lot, items can be placed and secured in a reusable bin or tote inside the trunk. That reusable bin can then bring the items in bulk into the home, being able to transport ergonomically more items than a bag. Any added time to place items from cart into the car bin will be made up with time saved from not needing to unbag and deal with trash at home. This is not about reinventing the retail bag, but rather reinventing the shopping system and incorporating preferred reduce and reuse capabilities for a better overall experience. Design the ideal system first, then the products.
A second example of personal circularity involves extending clothing utilization by participating in the secondhand resale and purchase of clothes. The current system for producing, distributing, and using clothes is very linear in which “large amounts of nonrenewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often only used for a short period, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration.” Every second one truckload of clothing is landfilled or burned. The term “secondhand” is defined as the consumption of all used apparel, and it includes both the resale sector and the thrift/donation sector. In 2019, the resale economy grew 25X faster than the broader retail market, and resale is expected to increase from a $7 billion market to $36 billion in just five years.
My daughter, part of Generation Z that is driving the growth in secondhand shopping, recently introduced me to a local secondhand store. There I bought a long sleeve polo-style shirt for $1, and she bought a pair of Reebox shoes for $3; both items were clean, in good condition, and retail new for $70. This product use extension is circularity with big savings for still-quality items.
Finally, individuals can play a circular role in restoring natural ecosystems through daily acts around the home. The example here is composting abundant household organic waste items like food scraps and yard trimmings to create a soil fertilizer capable of returning valuable nutrients to the land to support its health and regeneration, or to a garden for improved growing conditions. Composting wasted food and other organics at home also reduces landfill-generated methane, a potent greenhouse gas. With an estimated 31% of food waste at retail and consumer levels, local composting would turn this waste into a productive and valued resource. Good reference websites on composting can be found at EPA and USDA, and a comprehensive guide for composting at home is offered by the Cornell Waste Management Institute.
Whether declining a bag or reusing a bin for groceries, or reselling or repurchasing clothing, or setting up a home or neighborhood composting station, opportunities abound for us to increase our personal circularity. In doing so, mindsets and behaviors will change, one activity at a time, and produce a cumulating effect in the much-needed transformation from linear to circular models in our homes and businesses. Have a happy and circular New Year.
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association