Circular economy business models can help companies cut costs, reduce waste and improve efficiencies.
But shifting from a linear take-make-dispose model to a circular approach where products and resources are reused and recycled can be tricky.
“You are talking about changing entire business models and ways companies do business,” said Jennifer Gerholdt, US Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center senior director, environment program. “You need to get buy in at all levels of the organization and shifting to the circular economy requires partnerships and collaboration among many stakeholders.”
To address this challenge, the US Chamber Foundation, in partnership with Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Walmart Foundation, Target, Walgreens and Republic Services will launch a pilot project in January, Gerholdt said in an interview.
The pilot will take place in a yet-to-be determined US city and will focus on increasing the recycling, recovery and reuse of high-value materials. The project is still in the scoping phase, spearheaded by Resource Recycling Systems, which is identifying a number of potential regions in which to locate the pilot and materials to be targeted for recycling and reuse.
“With these partners, we want to provide a platform demonstrating how to optimize recycling and recovery of high-value materials generated from industrial, commercial and residential sources, through public-private partnerships and best practices,” Gerholdt said. “We want to demonstrate a scalable model to help communities, cities and businesses achieve their zero-waste and economic development goals.”
The Chamber Foundation will officially announce the pilot at its 2016 Corporate Citizenship Conference next week in Washington, DC.
In a related effort, the Chamber Foundation in early 2017 will launch a free, online circular economy toolbox to help corporations measure and communicate their circular economy successes and learn from other companies’ best practices. The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) have partnered with the Chamber Foundation on this effort.
“Currently there is no open-source online toolbox that can educate all company stakeholders on the actual mechanics of implementing circular economy principles and practices,” Gerholdt said. “This will help all companies regardless of size and industry, and will answer questions around analyzing and measuring metrics, handling product take-backs, managing resource usage and communicating the importance of circularity both internally and eternally.”
Both of these projects are part of the Chamber Foundation’s two-year-old circular economy program. The program aims to showcases companies’ profitable circular-economy best practices and approaches, and provides a platform for learning and networking to accelerate the circular economy in the US.
To showcase best practices, the Chamber Foundation has produced two reports that look at how companies are applying circular economy approaches to cut costs and decrease waste. The most recent report, published in February, highlighted Walmart and IBM as two companies turning waste steams into profit streams. IBM, for example, saved $2 million in material and transportation costs in 2014 by reducing packaging waste.
As part of its work to provide a networking and learning platform, the Chamber Foundation has hosted two tours exploring circular economy business practices. The most recent tour, hosted in partnership with Arizona State University, the city of Phoenix, the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, and Republic Services, took place last month.
The two-day event included site tours and workshops that examined ways companies and cities can reduce waste through circular economy partnerships.
One of these site tours took executives to Intel’s Chandler campus, which employs 11,000 employees and is the company’s second-largest US. site. Attendees visited the site’s reverse osmosis water facility, managed in partnership with the city of Chandler.
In 1995, Intel started funding the Chandler Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment Plant for its fab. Using reverse osmosis technologies, process water from the fabs is treated to drinking water standards and re-charged to the underground aquifer to replenish the groundwater supply in Chandler. Since 1996, this circular economy strategy has resulted in more than 5.1 billion gallons of water put back into the aquifer by Intel.
“As a manufacturing company, Intel relies on a huge amount of water and Phoenix is a water-scarce region,” Gerholdt said. “This partnership shows how Intel is able to use the water it needs for its plant but then also replenishes the underground aquifer. With recycling, reuse and recharge, companies can find ways to still be profitable in water-scarce areas.”
At another tour stop, attendees visited the Resource Innovation Campus (pictured), a partnership between the city of Phoenix and ASU that includes a closed landfill, transfer station, materials recovery facility, and more than 100 acres of vacant land. The campus will serve as a business incubator for developing emerging products and technologies from the city’s waste resources.
Through its tours, its national circular economy summits and other networking and educational opportunities, the Chamber Foundation has played a leading role in advancing the circular economy in the US. Its soon-to-be-launched pilot program and online toolbox will likely strengthen these efforts, and we’re looking forward to learning about more innovative ways leading companies are reducing waste while growing profits.
Photo Credit: Sandra Tenuto Photography
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said Walmart, not Walmart Foundation, was a partner on the circular economy pilot based on information provided by the US Chamber Foundation.