At this time, most of the world’s economy is linear: materials are extracted, processed, produced, sold, and then eventually dumped in landfills. But the idea of a circular economy – where materials are used in a closed cycle, with renewable energy – is gaining ground, and many companies in 2021 are setting targets to become circular in the coming decades. The coming years will be crucial to solidify the growing circular economy.
7 trends that will contribute to the expansion of the circular economy in 2021
- More brands will use reusable packaging
An increasing number of companies are rethinking product design to avoid disposable packaging. Startups like Blueland and Everdrop now sell cleaning products in the form of tablets that can be thrown into reusable bottles. Bite sells tiny toothpaste cards so you can avoid the standard plastic tubes. Nestlè is starting to test charging stations in shops for coffee and pet food; a startup called Algramo is introducing charging stations for detergents and cleaning products in automated laundries. Mcdonald’s is testing reusable coffee mugs that can be thrown in a cleaning basket; Burger King is testing a reusable container for the famous Whopper sandwich.
Others are testing new reusable containers for take-away food and food delivery. Loop, the system that delivers mainstream products such as Häagen-Dazs ice cream in reusable and returnable packaging, continues to grow.
Dove just launched a rechargeable, stainless steel deodorant container. Joe Iles, head of the circular design program at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British organization that focuses on the circular economy, describes the deodorant container as “A well-designed product, whose goal is that you keep it and almost look after it. I think we’ll start to see more offers like this since they’re very much wanted. They detach themselves from the idea that this conception is only for a few enlightened”.
- Plastic packaging will be much less and easier to recycle
In some cases, companies are eliminating extra packaging: Walmart, for example, has stopped wrapping some products in plastic film in Canadian stores. But others are finding more innovative solutions. Carlsberg replaced some plastic rings from six-pack beers with a new type of glue. Apeel makes a safe and edible coating (without plastic casing) that can protect the fruit from deterioration.
Companies that focus on local production, such as Infarm, which grows vegetables and herbs directly in grocery stores, can avoid the packaging that would normally be used for shipping. Other designs still use plastic but make packaging easier to recycle, such as a water bottle without a label that is made of a single material (of course, the best option for water is still a reusable container). This kind of innovation will continue to grow as the problems with plastics become even more obvious: by 2040, according to a recent report, the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean could triple if we don’t make big changes in the current system.
- More companies will take back the products when you’re done using them
If you don’t want your old pair of Levi’s anymore, the company will pay you to put them back on the market. Others, like Patagonia, also take up old clothes, repair and restore them so that they can find a second life. Startups like the Thousand Fell sneakers brand pick up their shoes when users have consumed them so that they can be recycled (unlike most sneakers, these have been designed from the start to be recyclable). Ikea, which aims to become a circular company by the end of the decade, is trying to figure out how to do product withdrawal on a large scale and experimenting with other business models, such as furniture rental.
“I’m sure we’ll see more established brands wondering how they can participate in changing ownership rules and what it means to own a product,” says Iles. “Do you own the product forever, or are you a temporary caretaker, and then it can switch to someone else?
- Companies will make the circular economy part of their climate strategy
As companies switch to renewable energy and take other measures to reduce their carbon footprints, they also increasingly realize that a circular economy model is part of the solution. “About 45% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we make and use products and the way we manage the Earth,” says Joe Iles. “So many organizations are drawing on that missing piece of the puzzle”. Taking a used product and preparing it for resale, for example, can avoid almost all the climate impact of manufacturing the same product from scratch.
- New policies will support the circular economy
More governments are likely to issue new laws that can support the growth of the circular economy. This could include more bans on disposable plastic, following examples from Countries such as Canada, where plastic bags, straws, packages, plastic forks, and other disposable items will be banned by the end of 2021. There could also be new incentives, such as reduced taxes on used products that have been refurbished for resale.
- Companies will measure the progress they are making
“Brands are required to account for more and more measurements or indicators that go beyond the revenues, profits, and value to shareholders,” says Iles. Progress on circularity will probably become one of these measures. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development recently released circular transition indicators; the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has a new tool called Circulytics that helps companies measure and communicates their circular economy work.
- More designers will recognize the role they play in helping system change
“People in the design phase of products or services make decisions that directly influence if the things we use are more linear or more circular, so they have a fundamental role to play in the transition to a circular economy,” says Iles. “At the same time, the circular economy can offer designers a purpose. They’re not just creating things that will end up in a landfill or that will be useless or superficial to people. But they can use their skills to try to face global challenges“.