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A zero-waste world is possible in a circular economy. Here’s how it would work.

A sea turtle rests atop a discarded tire. In the ’70s and ’80s, many countries dumped old tires into the oceans to create artificial reefs, but the intention proved disastrous. The tires damaged existing reefs, and the rubber leached toxins into the seas. (Photo by Rich Carey)

The Circle Game

By Tanya Ishikawa

Buy a chai and a hummus wrap at any Planet Bluegrass festival in Lyons, and they’ll come in compostable or recyclable containers. You won’t even find receptacles for landfill-bound trash on the premises. Like many outdoor festivals around Colorado, Planet Bluegrass strives to produce zero waste, a microcosm of a “circular economy” in which products and packaging materials are recirculated in perpetuity.

Two members of Planet Bluegrass’ Sustainable Festivation Crew dance atop a zero-waste station at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. In 2018, the festival’s landfill-diversion rate was 62%. (photo by nocoast)

A zero-waste goal is no longer just a feel-good concept for nature lovers and live-music devotees. It’s critical that we overhaul the current status quo in which disposable products are extracted from natural resources and end up in greenhouse-gas-producing landfills. Or worse, find their way into the oceans where they kill wildlife and contaminate the food chain.

In a circular or cyclical economy, manufacturers create nontoxic products that are reusable, recyclable or compostable. After purchase and consumption, these products are collected and delivered to facilities where they are reclaimed for reuse, recycling or composting, rather than disposal.

Renewing the life cycle of products and packaging reduces the demand for virgin materials—which is desperately needed—as manufacturing in our linear economy uses far more natural resources than most people realize. The World Resources Institute estimates that the items in one can of trash initially require 87 cans’ worth of materials to produce. These materials come from extraction industries, such as timber, agriculture, mining and petroleum.

Workers separate and process mixed recyclables on a commingled recycling line at Eco-Cycle in Boulder. Single-stream recycling is easier for consumers, and encourages recycling in the communities that offer it. (photo courtesy eco-cycle)

Kate Bailey, Eco-Cycle policy and research director, says this wasteful process is unsustainable. “The oceans are filling up with plastic, but no one is paying the price. Not all the environmental and social impacts of disposable products are being measured in the price of products. That’s why we need policies to balance out the economic deficiencies,” she says. “Nearly every major report shows that reusing, recycling and recovery will be cheaper in the long run when you factor in all the long-term costs and health damage of our linear economy.”

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states, “By adopting circular economy principles [which some parts of Europe have embraced], Europe can…create a net benefit of 1.8 trillion euros by 2030, or 0.9 trillion euros more than in the current linear development path.” If Europe could gain that much economic momentum, the U.S. could also see staggering net gains by embracing a circular economy.

Even if manufacturers are grossly apathetic to public health and environ­men­tal issues, regulatory policies and monetary benefits could incentivize them to move toward a circular economy. “Businesses will respond to that challenge,” Bailey says. “They want to be first out of the gate to sell technology to the ones that follow.” As a hub of innovation and progressive policies, Boulder County is uniquely positioned to become a leader in developing this emerging sustainable economic model.

Becoming Circular Consumers

Eco-Cycle works with several companies to build a circular framework in Colorado. It supplies 19% of the glass processed by Momentum Recycling, which has kept more than 144 million pounds of glass out of landfills since its 2008 inception. When the Salt Lake City-based glass recycler opened a Broomfield processing plant—bringing jobs and revenue to Colorado—the state’s glass recycling rate increased from 6% to 23% (based on EPA statistics), and the company’s goal is to hit 50%.

A truck deposits recyclable materials at the Momentum Recycling facility in Broomfield. Momentum has kept more than 144 million pounds of glass out of landfills since opening the facility in 2008. (photo courtesy Momentum Recycling)

Momentum’s clean, processed glass is shipped to bottle manufacturers in Wheat Ridge and Windsor, Colorado, creating a sustainable, local life cycle for those bottles that leaves behind a tiny carbon footprint. A person in Boulder County can drink a beer, recycle the empty bottle, and within three weeks the recycled glass can be found in new bottles sitting on store shelves, having never traveled more than 125 miles and sometimes staying within a 15-mile radius.

Momentum president and CEO, John Lair, says, “If you consider what it takes to get virgin material to make glass—specialized sands, soda ash, limestone and various other components—these often come from far away. The energy footprint to extract them from the Earth and ship them leaves a much bigger environmental footprint than does recycled glass from the Front Range.”

Currently, no local company has integrated the complete circular concept within its own manufacturing operations, which is where policy changes can make a huge difference. “A great example is when the EU required car manufacturers to take back their cars for recycling,” Bailey says. “BMW took their cars back and tried to dismantle them, and they were like, ‘Oh, there’s all these different types of plastics and they’re not labeled!’ So they redesigned and simplified, and there are now three types of plastics. They can dismantle a whole car in three hours because they connected the designer with the end process. We’re seeing a lot of movement in that direction.”

A worker at Boulder’s Resource Central transfers a bale of paper for recycling. Each ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water. This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings and 60 fewer pounds of air pollution, according to recycling-revolution.com. (photo courtesy eco-cycle)

International efforts to implement circular systems can be seen in businesses like Loop, a circular shopping platform launched this spring in the New York and Paris regions by Trenton, New Jersey-based TerraCycle. Loop partners with manufacturers to deliver food and household products to consumers, who order online and pay a deposit for the products’ reusable containers, which they ship back to Loop for free when empty to be cleaned, sanitized and reused. Consumers can order refills or get their deposits back, in which case the containers are refilled for other shoppers. All products are delivered in a specially designed Loop tote that eliminates single-use shipping materials like Styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and ice packs.

Small, independent companies aren’t the only ones trending in this direction. National corporations are adopting circular infrastructures for product recovery and zero waste. Best Buy allows customers to drop off used electronics for recycling, and Kroger has achieved zero waste at 34 of its 36 manufacturing plants and is reaching 77% waste diversion companywide.

“The circular economy is the key to unlocking solutions for a lot of global issues,” says Bailey. “I honestly don’t think we have much of a choice; we have one planet and we are depleting our resources. The question is not, ‘Can we achieve zero waste?’ but, ‘When and how quickly can we do it?’ And for whoever gets there first, there are profits to be made. We want to help Boulder County be a leader on that front.”

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