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From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
Investment and Innovation:
How Cities Serve as Epicenters for Circularity

At the recent WRLDCTY event in October, a rich panel discussion explored how a systems approach can help realize a more circular future — using cities as a backdrop.

In an increasingly urbanized world, cities have become epicenters for circularity improvements. Their advanced infrastructure, resources and diverse populations drive the development and implementation of innovative practices; and municipal governments can collaborate on sustainability efforts in newer ways — they can set ambitious climate targets, try new things and work closely with local businesses and organizations to achieve sustainability goals.

So, can cities provide a platform for realizing the true circularity of materials? Could an ecosystem of recycling and reuse of used materials — including plastics — thrive in a city setting and make that city even more resilient? Yes! Cities are already demonstrating this — and the interconnected components of a city teach us valuable things about how to scale for circularity success.

At the recent WRLDCTY event in October, I participated in a panel (“Make the Invisible Visible: Getting to Net Zero”) with moderator Steven Pedigo, Professor of Practice at the University of TexasLyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs; Signe Kongebro, Global Design Director of Urbanism at Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen; and Keefe Harrison, founder and CEO of the Recycling Partnership (The Partnership). Together, we explored how a systems approach can help realize a more circular future, using cities as a backdrop.

Much of our discussion focused on the pressing need to increase recycling access in urban areas. If we’re going to achieve a circular economy for plastics, it’s crucial that we have good collection and recycling methods in place to capture used materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill or incineration.

Building capacity to collect recyclable materials

The Partnership is one NGO on a mission to transform the US recycling system by expanding equitable access to recycling and improving recycling behavior; Dow works with The Partnership as a steering committee member of its Film & Flexibles Recycling Coalition.

As Harrison pointed out during our event: “There is a strong interest in recycling as a means of advancing a circular economy. But there are 40 million American families that don’t even have access to recycling; and there are 9,000 different recycling programs in the US. They all rely on local decision-makers to decide what to recycle, how to market it and how to communicate it. That’s a challenge when it comes to budget. So, when you ask communities whether they are excited about resiliency, they say ‘yes.’ When you ask whether they know it’s critical for navigating climate change, 100 percent say ‘yes.’ But do they have the funding to do [what is necessary]? No — that’s where NGOs come in.”

Companies such as Dow are piloting programs across the country to increase recycling accessibility; for example, we have collaborated with WM to introduce the first major residential plastic film recycling program in the US. Not only does this bring a new type of recycling directly to residents’ doors (and curbs), but the program also incorporated The Partnership’s approach to recycling education, which will allow Dow and our partners to better understand which educational tactics best inform residents and produce the best recycling results.

The role of policy in circularity

On the panel, we agreed that current regulations — in most parts of the world — are not well suited for a thriving circular economy. Outdated regulations support the old, linear, take-make-dispose model versus the circular model we need to move to as a society to maximize resource efficiency. Keefe points to extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies — a policy approach that makes the producers of a product the responsible party for what happens to that product at the end of its life — as a key tool for cities to boost circularity. While the practice originated in Europe, this is now being adopted in states including Maine, Colorado, California and Oregon.

The most impactful EPR systems are set up to incentivize the entire system, so that manufacturers design for recyclability and consumers find it easy to recycle — helping advance circularity.

At Dow, we talk about the role of EPR as part of our insights on the materials ecosystem — where we share our perspectives on how connected systems and people are helping plastic waste reach its full potential.

As I shared during the panel, in Anchorage, Alaska — which has numerous challenges in being separate from the rest of the US, not least the huge cost of moving materials and the limited landfill space — there are many lessons to be learned as we address collected marine debris and develop reuse and refill systems.

Of course, challenges remain for city-level circularity. But as the panel concluded, community engagement coupled with appropriate policy intervention will help to close the gap and accelerate the systems change required.

“I see companies agreeing that we need policy to make better solutions — policy that’s going to hold them accountable,” Kongebro said.

I agree. There’s plenty of energy focused on solving climate change, and more and more people and organizations are understanding that circularity is a big part of that. Consumers will continue to drive circularity; that trajectory is not changing. And we’re going to continue to meet that demand — not just for the sake of the climate but for our business, too.

During the panel, I touched quickly on how the materials ecosystem is developing around plastic and organic waste to deliver its total value. The materials ecosystem is a web of interrelated technologies, processes and people that transform plastic waste and organic waste — such as used cooking oil and agricultural waste — into useful materials. The ecosystem includes consumers and stakeholders in waste management, recycling, design, manufacturing, retail, brand ownership and public policy. While in New York City for this panel, I was reminded more than once that systems drive the progress of our world — on both a global and a local level. This is definitely true for the management and transformation of waste.

In navigating a city such as New York, for example, you see the prevalence of recycling and the movement of waste — as well as the proliferation of reusable materials in everything from fashion using recycled materials to water-refill stations that encourage reusable water bottles.

I look forward to continuing this conversation and experiencing the rise of circularity within cities. Learn more by diving into Dow’s insights on the Materials Ecosystem. View the entire panel here.

Realizing a circular future for plastics requires every stakeholder working together. That's why Dow is taking an innovative systems approach to identify the gaps, connect the best partners and disrupt how the world values, sources, transforms and monetizes plastic waste.

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