The goal of circularity, as we’ve discovered, is to remove waste throughout the system that produces retail goods (or any other system, really). It’s about redesigning, reusing, and recycling consumer products—and reducing their negative impact on the environment.

Today, we’re going to begin our look at recycling, a key part of the circular equation. More specifically, we’ll examine the four most promising ideas in this area:

  • Using recycled raw materials in products
  • Expanding opportunities for recycling consumer goods
  • Emerging business models, which leverage recycled goods
  • Maximizing recycling in retail packaging

Each of these areas has an array of innovative solutions, as well as its own set of challenges. But one thing’s for sure: Recycling, in any form, is a powerful tool to radically reduce the waste generated by retail and consumer consumption.

Today’s Subject: Using Recycled Materials in Consumer Goods

A surefire way to close a circle of waste is to make products that use recycled or repurposed materials.

It’s hardly a new concept. Patagonia introduced its post-consumer recycled fleece program 25 years ago, and the company now carries a variety of high-performance gear that uses recycled content. (SJ)

But Patagonia is not alone in offering goods with recycled materials. If you check out Wired’s list of “Our Favorite Upcycled and Recycled Products,” you’ll see how easy it is to buy consumer goods made from plastic bottles, worn fishing nets, discarded scuba suits, or old carpets.

The trick, however, to making significant progress on circularity is creating scale, and in this case, “scale” means increasing consumer interest in buying items that use recycled materials. So now, we arrive at the proverbial chicken or egg question. Which comes first—the demand for recycled raw materials or the supply?

To achieve scale, retailers and brands need to focus on input (that is, having a supply of easily obtained recycled raw materials), as well as output (that is, making a popular product that will come from those materials). For example, retailers can work toward scale by using an item with massive supply, such as plastic water bottles. And those bottles, in turn, can be used to make your customer’s favorite fleece.

Other sources for recycled raw materials come from fabrics already widely in use. For example, cotton and polyester make up 90% of the clothing made today. But it takes many resources to produce both fibers, and most products made from them end up in the trash bin. That colossal waste makes cotton and polyester ideal candidates for recycling. (Vogue)

A Seattle based startup, Evrnu, sees this as a prime opportunity. Evrnu’s proprietary technology makes fabric from post-consumer cotton, polyester, and elastane, and it plans to launch commercially in 2020.

Evrnu’s technical innovation is extracting the molecular building blocks of each substrate and using them to make new fabrics. These fabrics are stronger and can be used again and again. “All are designed to create higher quality raw materials from waste that is recyclable, and improve product performance, while simultaneously reducing the impact to natural resources,” says Stacey Flynn, the company’s CEO. (SJ)

The Quality Question

Okay, so you can produce a lot of consumer stuff with recycled water bottles and recycled cotton. But what about the quality of those goods? Will they perform well in the real world?

Here again, we have reason to hope, because innovation is closing gaps in the quality space.

PrimaLoft is a world leader in the development of high-performance insulations and fabrics. They’ve developed a technology that allows them to produce clothing insulation from 100% post-consumer recycled materials.

Using their proprietary manufacturing technique P.U.R.E., which stands for “Produced Using Reduced Emissions,” PrimaLoft makes insulation that performs as well as its top-rated existing materials.

And that’s not all. The P.U.R.E technique reduces carbon emissions by 48%. Even better, you’ll see these materials available from brands such as Patagonia this fall.

PrimaLoft will also be launching PrimaLoft® Bio™, the world’s first biodegradable, 100% recycled synthetic insulation and fabric. It will be available in apparel from brands such as Houdini and Norrona as early as this fall.

The Cost Question

The final (and not-insignificant) challenge to increasing the use of recycled raw materials is cost, especially when many retailers and their suppliers are still reeling from the shock of Covid-19.

But there’s mounting evidence to show that consumers are demanding more sustainable solutions, regardless of the pandemic and the cost of eco-friendly goods.

At the end of July, Genomatica, a California-based biotechnology company, released the results of a consumer survey focused on sustainability.  The survey found that consumers continue to care deeply about sustainability and are taking actions to support these concerns.

“The collective consciousness on sustainability is rising, and certainly faster than most would have expected during these unprecedented times,” said Christophe Schilling, Genomatica’s CEO. “While this shift has been underway for decades, and is particularly strong in Europe, many of us in the US have been inspired by the [recent] rapid improvement in air quality and traffic that shine a bright light on how our behaviors and decisions impact our environment and quality of life. As brands are learning, Americans are increasingly spending in line with their values, fueling a ray of hope in a tough year.”

More specifically, the Genomatica survey found that:

  • More than a third (37%) of Americans are willing to pay a little more for sustainable products, even during an economic downturn. Across age groups, Gen Z is the most willing to do so (43%).
  • Of Americans who have been more sustainable lately, 1 in 3 say it’s because they’re buying more sustainable products.

Clearly, the demand from consumers is growing. As are the number of sustainability options provided by manufacturers.

Increasing the Use of Recycled Raw Materials

One group has the power to accelerate the adoption of sustainable initiatives, such as the use of recycled raw materials. This group can bring together manufacturers (and their eco-friendly supply) and consumers (with their eco-friendly demand).

That group is retailers.

It’s simple, really. When retailers take a more active role in creating the demand for recycled raw materials, good things will happen. Supplies of these recycled materials will increase. Innovation will abound and lend a hand. And in the end, the cost of goods produced with these recycled materials will decrease.

Consumers will be delighted, and they’ll throw their business to the retailers who are making a concerted effort to make our air, water, and soil cleaner.

So really, isn’t it time for retail to step up and unleash its awesome power?

In my next update, we’ll look at another promising recycling avenue for retailers, that is, expanding opportunities for consumers to recycle their goods.